September 30, 1994 - From the September, 1994 issue

TPR Point/Counter Point: L.A. Affordable Housing Incentives Program

TPR presents a point/counterpoint between Sandy Brown, President of Westside Civic Federation, and Dave Ferguson, Vice President of Thomas Safran & Associates, on the new Affordable Housing Incentives Program in Los Angeles.

Wait! Let's not throw out the baby with the bath water. Affordable housing is a must, but there have to be incentives for humans to occupy the units. There are a multitude of incentives for a developer, naturally, but someone forgot to consider the occupants and nearby neighbors. Rooftop open space, minimal landscaping, "reasonably" dispersed units virtually void of parking spaces, and "planned" transit corridors which may never become a reality, all signal a build anything, anywhere, anytime mentality. Bonuses are important, but LA must plan for and expect something in return. 

One must immediately sort out exactly who needs what bonus. The developer? The occupants? Los Angeles? Perhaps all three! Those of us who have voiced strong concerns with the ordinance agree on the ultimate goal: the City of Los Angeles must provide housing which is affordable. But one doesn't have to bust Community Plans to get there, or thumb one’s nose at the existing stock of affordable housing, or expect rooftops to serve as family open space, surely preserving no one’s dignity. Remember the slogan, "War is not healthy for children and other living things?" Such is the case for many of the planned incentives for production of affordable housing. Not healthy! 

Our City Council has never been known to abdicate absolute final control. While the ordinance requires passage by the City Council, the implementing guidelines are vested only with the Planning Commission. The community input has potential impact only at the Council and not at the level of those who serve at the pleasure of the Mayor. How do we hold accountable the Mayor's appointed commissioners who gave at the Political Patronage Office? 

One would expect that incentives should surely accomplish the job of providing affordable housing. But without any enforcement in place, save self-policing by owners, many of the units will quickly become market rate. Covenants and compliance are miles apart; and self-reporting breeds the worst in many and diminishes the available units for most. 

Many of these entitlements are "by right" and require no public review. "By right" must first be right. The ordinance as proposed will most assuredly provide living spaces. Affordable? Well, not necessarily. Livable? Not yet. For years to come? Who's checking? And oh, by the way, with such places to reside, now where are the jobs?

By Dave Ferguson, Vice President, Thomas Safran & Associates

The affordable housing incentives program is much more than a mere "shot-in-the-arm" bonus to the affordable housing industry. It is an important planning tool designed to streamline the pedantic approval process for all development projects offering affordable housing for families with lower incomes. 


A typical proposal in a multi-family residential neighborhood might take a year or two to be processed through the planning and zoning system. Under the new proposal presented to the planning and land use management committee, the system remains intact. The City Council person retains full discretion over all developments which do not meet approved zoning requirements, thereby ensuring homeowners and neighbors a continuing say in the disposition of all multiple residential developments. 

The incentives program allows zone-complying development to acquire an as-of-right bonus which gives clear incentive to the production of affordable housing and more accurately reflects the reality of producing this specialized housing. At a 300-unit large family project in the North Valley developed by our company within the past few years, we were required by code to provide over two parking spaces per unit Experience taught us that only one-third to one-half of these spaces would actually be utilized, but at the time we were unable to receive a zone variance to reduce the parking requirement. Our method of dealing with the parking issue was to section off about half of the parking for use as additional recreation areas. The development is now fully occupied, and we have carefully monitored parking requirements which are more than adequate at 50 percent of the spaces dictated by code. Other family developments across the city have mirrored this experience. 

The Affordable Housing Incentives Program is designed to implement state law in a manner which reflects the realities of producing housing by minimizing the public subsidy dollars to increase what may be produced for those dollars. 

If we can reduce the parking costs alone, our figures show that we can expect to lower our total costs by 10 percent or more. Our 300-unit development described earlier would be $2 million less expensive with lower parking requirements. This could have allowed us to add twenty more affordable housing units for the same public subsidy dollars providing that the density, open space and height requirements are in support of the reduced parking levels. 

The package jointly proposed by the Los Angeles City Planning Dept. and by the Housing Dept. is based on a common sense approach to cutting red tape, expediting the production of much needed housing, complying with state law and preserving neighborhoods. The higher densities are achievable without compromising good design. The lower parking requirements are realistic and will be monitored on an ongoing basis.


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