A grand vision for affordable housing

Eli Broad has suggested that once its big makeover is complete, Grand Avenue will be comparable to the Champs-Elysees. That’s bunk. But it may look a little like Sesame Street, and that’s terrific.

The children’s public television program -- which, in the words of a recent study by a University of New Hampshire scholar, has “strived to exemplify and create an egalitarian and more tolerant community” -- has had a tough time being replicated in the real world. This is especially true in L.A., which is highly balkanized along racial and class lines.

The $2-billion Grand Avenue Project, though, may prove an important exception. Although it hasn’t received as much attention as the plans for a five-star hotel, 16-acre park and retail and restaurant space, the downtown development is slated to include about 2,000 units of housing, with 20% of these designated “affordable” and subsidized for those who can’t pay market rates.

The Grand Avenue development would hardly be alone in offering such dwellings. More than 20,000 affordable units have been created in L.A. since the late 1990s. But what makes this project extraordinary is the range of income earners it promises to attract: those buying seven-figure penthouse condominiums living alongside people who will be asked to shell out only $454 to $649 a month for a one-bedroom apartment or $630 to $900 for a three-bedroom unit.


To qualify, an individual must earn $16,975 to $24,250 a year, and a family of four must have income of $24,255 to $34,650. On the open market, rents for one-bedroom flats in the Frank Gehry-designed high-rise are likely to run at $2,500 or so, while the three-bedrooms should fetch $4,000 or more.

The first phase of the three-stage project -- set to come before the Los Angeles City Council and county Board of Supervisors for approval next week -- will feature 500 housing units, 100 of them subsidized.

Adding condos to the equation is particularly unusual. “I’m sure people in real estate are shaking their heads at this,” says Bill Witte, president of the California arm of Related Cos., the developer on the project. In this way, Grand Avenue is poised to become an intriguing experiment -- one that may well serve as a financial model for other developers and an inspiration for policymakers.

“I truly think the concept of mixed income is the wave of the future,” says G. Allan Kingston, president and chief executive of Century Housing, a Culver City-based nonprofit housing lender that is not involved with Grand Avenue.

In his experience, Kingston notes, it’s more common for a given building to be 100% affordable, with no tenants paying full freight. It’s also not unheard of for the developers of a site, in return for certain public incentives, to meet their affordable-housing obligation at an entirely different location, or by sticking money into a central fund.

But those behind Grand Avenue were bent on making sure the project would have all sorts of people residing right there, with equal access to amenities.

Too often, “nobody wants to live with the janitor’s family. That’s very troubling to me,” says Supervisor Gloria Molina, who chairs the joint city-county authority set up to implement the project. “We need to change that.”

It is not as if no churning among classes occurs in L.A. Many of these experiences, however, are less than positive: young professionals stepping over the homeless on skid row as they stroll from loft to luxury car, or legions of Latino housekeepers reporting to work for wealthy whites in Pacific Palisades. “They’re interacting -- but as master and servant,” says Phil Ethington, an urban historian at USC who has just finished drawing up a series of maps that examine segregation in L.A. by race and income.


What a high-profile project such as Grand Avenue reminds us, in a far more constructive way, is that “the whole society is inseparably integrated,” as Ethington puts it. “Everybody’s fate is linked to everybody else’s.”

This means learning to appreciate the struggle that a huge number of working people face in finding a home that won’t bankrupt them. The term “crisis” gets tossed around so much that it’s been rendered practically meaningless. But in the case of housing here, it’s not hyperbole. Financial planners say people should spend no more than a third of what they make on where they live. By this measure, more than 50% of homes in Los Angeles were affordable in 1996 to those earning the area’s median income; today, only about 5% are.

“I have said this time and time again to people 45 or 50 years old: ‘Your children could not afford to buy the home you live in,’ ” says Councilwoman Jan Perry, vice chairwoman of the joint authority.

The Grand Avenue Project has attracted plenty of skeptics and naysayers. I, for one, don’t accept the line trotted out by Broad, the billionaire philanthropist who conceived the undertaking, that the place is bound to become a “vibrant center” for all of Southern California. That’s just not how the region functions. A more realistic goal is simply for Grand Avenue to become a destination (like the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica or Old Pasadena), rather than the destination.


Others, including my Times colleague Steve Lopez, have questioned the tax breaks being sought by Related, which could cost as much as $66 million. And some have carped that the project doesn’t do enough for the poor.

But such criticism ignores the progressive wage standards and worker training programs tied to the construction and to permanent jobs there, along with the affordable housing that Grand Avenue would provide (in part through an initial $10-million public investment by the Community Redevelopment Agency).

These units will give hundreds of firefighters, teachers, secretaries, nurses and others a chance to live close to where they work as well as close to public transportation. And then there’s the additional benefit: a rare opportunity for the well-heeled and those of less means to get to know one another as neighbors.

Witte points out that “you can’t legislate social interaction. You can’t make people go watch ‘Monday Night Football’ together.” But when I dropped by the Paramount, a mixed-income high-rise in the heart of San Francisco built and managed by Related, I was struck by the camaraderie among the tenants -- something encouraged by common areas such as a rooftop deck with views out to the bay.


Jim Blacksten, who lives in one of the subsidized apartments at the Paramount, says most people in the building have no idea who’s in an affordable unit and who’s not. But occasionally, it’ll come up. “Some people are kind of standoffish at first,” he says. But once they talk a bit, it’s generally not an issue anymore. “It forces them to change their thinking a little.”

It doesn’t get any grander than that.


Rick Wartzman is an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation. He is reachable at