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Apartments in Dire Need

For the first time in years, the San Fernando Valley’s apartment market is hot. Vacancy rates hover at 5%, less than half what they were two years ago. This year, more than 900 new units will be built, with another 600 in the pipeline for next year--making the Valley second only to the Westside in new apartment construction. Despite all the activity, the flurry of construction is nowhere near the level needed to house the Valley’s growing population. Some experts estimate the Valley would need 2,400 new units during the next year to keep pace with growth. The likely result: overcrowding and rising prices.

Keeping housing affordable and safe is the goal behind a Habitat for Humanity project in Pacoima. The 55-home project on a 4-acre lot would be the group’s largest in the Valley. Habitat volunteers work with future homeowners to build new houses sold at below-market prices. Those chosen to work with Habitat can buy a home with a 30-year interest-free mortgage. It’s a positive addition to a neighborhood knocked down by poverty and drugs. But the Habitat project makes only a modest dent in the coming crunch.

Although popular with buyers and made more affordable by recession and low interest rates, traditional single-family homes cannot realistically accommodate all new residents--unless metropolitan Los Angeles continues to ooze ever farther through canyons and passes. New apartments and condominiums are needed, both to house new residents and to revitalize old neighborhoods. But many obstacles make it difficult to develop new multifamily projects.

First, the Valley boasts little open land. On land that is available for development, city officials often would rather see retail or commercial development. Why? Because they generate jobs and sales tax. Since Proposition 13, residential projects--whether apartments or houses--are long-term money losers. Despite regular property tax payments, local governments end up losing money because residential projects require decades of police and fire protection, street maintenance and school staffing. Sharing revenues regionally could make local officials less hungry for retail stores and more serious about dealing with housing shortages.

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Plus, permits for apartments can be difficult to get. Many homeowners don’t want apartments in their neighborhoods. And no wonder. Thousands of tacky buildings line busy Valley streets or lord over lanes of single-family homes. That’s just bad planning. But many newer apartment buildings--particularly some of those built to replace quake-damaged structures--are attractive additions to their neighborhoods. Smart planning and sensitive architecture can do wonders.

The allure of single-family homes cannot be underestimated. They offer space and quiet for growing families. They helped create the Valley’s image as a suburban paradise. But times change. New apartments and condominiums can serve older residents without young children or single people without the need for a yard. Housing a new generation of Valley residents requires thinking in new ways about the limited land available for construction. Apartments can help ease the crunch when it comes.

While the allure of a house and yard is strong, multifamily units can ease the Valley’s coming housing crunch. But obstacles remain.


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