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Urbanism memo to President Biden: Think housing, transit ... and don’t forget the designers

A homeless encampment sits in shadow on the banks of a lake, with houses illuminated by sunlight in the distance.
An encampment at Echo Park Lake in late December. One of Biden’s monumental challenges will be addressing the need for housing.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
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For a guy who was born and raised in a big city, and made his name producing terrible real estate developments there, Donald Trump wasn’t exactly partial to big cities as president.

He regularly stoked white suburban fear about “inner cities” (read: nonwhite places) with tales of “Judge Dredd"-levels of crime and poverty. His own hometown of New York, he once described as an “anarchist jurisdiction.” He liked to say that crime in Chicago was “worse than Afghanistan.” In 2019, he accused San Francisco and Los Angeles of destroying themselves with homelessness. “Clean it up,” he said. “You’ve got to do something.”

Trump’s idea of “doing something” consisted of a spaghetti throw of proposals designed to decimate the Department of Housing and Urban Development, while shifting transit money from mass transit projects to rural highways.

Big-city mayors likely are breathing a collective sigh of relief that the guy now in charge is Joe Biden — a guy whose nickname, “Amtrak Joe,” is derived from his frequent use of mass transit. Biden is unlikely to deploy federal agents to big cities just because. And he is more finely attuned to the dynamic places that cities can be.

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For the record:

11:12 AM, Feb. 01, 2021In the first reference to Sarah Karlinsky, her last name is misspelled as Karlinksy.

But there is a mountain of work to be done. The Biden-Harris administration is contending with a pandemic that has made more stark the racial, social and economic inequities of our cities, be it access to housing, green spaces or functional transit options — at a moment in which hundreds of thousands of people teeter on the brink of eviction in California alone.

The needs will be massive — and the solutions will be big and small. Here are three ideas for how we can begin to tackle the problem:

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Treat housing like infrastructure

When Carmel Partners, the company building a 35-story tower in the downtown Los Angeles Arts District, first floated its development plan for the site, the City Planning Commission recommended that 11% of the proposed units go to “very low income” households. But after the developer made a generous donation, federal investigators say, to a favorite political committee of former City Councilman José Huizar, the councilman recommended that 6% of the units be set aside for “moderate income” residents instead — saving Carmel $14 million in expenses. (The story is part of an ongoing scandal that has rocked City Hall and played out like a bribery telenovela, one involving female escort services and envelopes full of cash exchanged in Vegas casinos.)

An earth mover preps a construction site within view of the Fourth Street Bridge in Los Angeles.
City planners recommended that a development at 520 Mateo St. by Carmel Partners devote 11% of its units to “very low income” housing. That will not happen.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

This anecdote is important because, for decades, U.S. cities have counted on the private housing market, guided by government incentive, to produce affordable and low-income housing.

Needless to say: It hasn’t worked. Depending on the market to produce affordable housing is like depending on your wannabe rock-star boyfriend to release a hit single so you can pay next month’s rent. Theoretically, it could happen. But the chances are slim. And when it comes to housing, the market has absolutely, positively not delivered the requisite hits: Across the United States there is a shortage of affordable housing, with just 37 rental homes for every 100 extremely low-income renter households, according to the National Low Incoming Housing Coalition.

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Biden took a baby step on the housing problem by extending the federal eviction moratorium through March. But if we are to truly tackle the problem, we need to completely shift the way we think about housing. As Cristian Bevington and Sarah Karlinksy write on the urbanism website City Monitor, it’s time to treat housing not just as a private financial asset but as “essential infrastructure.”

Bevington and Karlinsky are among the authors of a new report published by the infrastructure firm AECOM in collaboration with Spur, an urbanism think tank based in the Bay Area. The report looks at strong government-led housing programs in six international cities — including Copenhagen, Berlin and Tokyo — that have resulted in far more equitable housing markets. “In many other countries, housing is viewed as a human right,” they write on City Monitor. “Government intervenes to ensure that a sufficient amount is available to those who need it at prices they can afford.”

In other words, it’s time to invest in social housing — in its design and construction but also its maintenance.

At the federal level, it would be helpful to start with a repeal of the Faircloth Amendment, 1990s-era legislation that prohibits any net increase in federal public-housing units.

Likewise, in California, we need to contend with Article 34 of the state constitution, a retrograde 1950s piece of legislation that requires a public vote before any new public housing can be built. Other states have gotten around to repealing similar laws but California has yet to pull it together. In light of all the feel-good conversations last summer about equity, and the state of housing and homelessness in California, it’s past time to scrap it: Article 34, as Mayor Eric Garcetti once noted, has its roots in “a white supremacist chapter in the state’s history.”

A view of the 1950s barracks-style homes at Mar Vista Gardens, separated by grassy garden areas
Mar Vista Gardens in Del Rey was built in the 1950s. Since that era public housing construction in California has been practically nonexistent.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

These are big moves. But immediate, smaller ones would help ease the crunch too.

A priority for Marcia Fudge, Biden’s nominee to lead the Department of Housing and Development, should be tackling the deferred maintenance in the country’s aging public housing projects — maintenance so perpetually underfunded that structures have become increasingly uninhabitable.

It’s also time to fund Section 8 vouchers — which function as federal rent subsidies for the poor — for anyone who qualifies (a move Biden embraced in his campaign platform). The wait times are currently years long, a factor that has contributed to the ongoing homelessness crisis. In fact, the Section 8 waiting list is closed in L.A. County — in 2017, LAist reported that the waiting list was 11 years long. For a child on the streets, that is, quite literally, a lifetime.

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Fewer highways, more mass transit

We continue to pour money into widening freeways, even though we know it doesn’t work.

The 405 freeway was expanded to the tune of $1.14 billion — yes, billion — and within months of reopening, traffic data revealed that commute times had actually slowed. These days, the expansionist tendencies of Metro and Caltrans are focused on the 5: Having recently completed a $1.3 billion expansion of the freeway in Burbank, they are now moving on to the stretch that runs through Southeast Los Angeles, demolishing swaths of working-class homes in the process.

This compounds an inequity that already exists: As my colleague Matthew Fleischer wrote in an essay published in June, freeways have indiscriminately carved up Black and Latino enclaves — in the case of Boyle Heights, running right through one of the city’s most scenic parks — destroying the urban grid and leaving poor communities contending with elevated levels of pollution. To expand a freeway is to continue to build on that legacy of racism. (This is a phenomenon that journalist Joe Linton has been assiduously chronicling for Streetsblog LA.)

With a freeway overpass looming in the back, a teen lifts himself on a pull-up bar with his bicycle entwined in his feet.
Dillan Cossio, 16, does pull-ups in Hollenbeck Park. The 5 Freeway can be seen running through the park behind him.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

The federal government has had a big hand in funding this phenomenon: throwing money at roads while treating their surroundings as a design afterthought.

At a time when many cities have undertaken Vision Zero campaigns to eliminate traffic fatalities, and made a move toward “complete street” design — which takes cyclists and pedestrians as much into account as it does the movement of cars — it’s time for the U.S. Department of Transportation, newly helmed by Pete Buttigieg, to catch up and not simply function as a sugar daddy for highways.

It will be critical to support rail and other mass transit options. Just as critical will be advocating for ways those options can intersect with the cheapest and easiest ways of getting around a city — namely, walking and biking. To achieve this, a group of transit organizations, along with the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), recommends that the DOT launch a new division: an Active Transportation Administration that would, in the words of ASLA’s policy recommendations, “provide vision, focus, and priority for active transportation programs.”

Spewing carbon monoxide across L.A. on the freeway system feeds into a pot of racism and segregation that’s been stewing for nearly a century.

In the same way that DOT has divisions devoted to highways, air and maritime travel, it can have one focused on cheaper, greener and healthier ways of getting around. At the very minimum, writes Kea Wilson at Streetsblog, DOT should have an Active Transportation czar — someone who can advocate a vision for cities that doesn’t simply revolve around cars but pushes for ways to connect cycling paths with city bus routes and hiking trails to metro stations.

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Imagine if we had this person now. The pandemic has made Americans ever more car-centric, while European cities have poured $1 billion into transforming themselves into havens for cycling.

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Call the designers

Building quality housing and city streets that make space for everybody requires the best design has to offer. My advice to the various entities of the Biden administration? Involve the designers from day one.

Part of moving forward is not repeating the mistakes of the past. And that involves turning to architects who have not only studied social housing but have worked on such projects through their careers.

In Southern California, that includes firms such as LOHA, led by Lorcan O’Herlihy; Michael Maltzan Architecture; Brooks + Scarpa; and Koning Eizenberg Architecture — all have shown they can build smartly and humanely at low budgets. (These projects can even offer architectural dazzle: The design for Maltzan’s Star Apartments, a supportive housing complex on skid row, was featured in the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale.)

A rendering shows the vast L.A. landscape and a housing development at the intersection of the 110 and 105 freeways
A rendering shows Isla Intersections and Annenberg Paseo, a prefab housing complex for formerly homeless residents, designed by Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects (LOHA) for nonprofit developer Clifford Beers Housing.
(LOHA)

In dry, fire-prone California, these architects, along with landscape designers such as Mia Lehrer and Walter Hood (winner of a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2019), also are thinking about ways in which design can help landscape become sustainable — in terms of the ecologies they feature but also the ways in which they reflect and honor the communities they serve.

A forward-thinking Biden administration could find ways to deploy human resources such as these in service of the public good rather than letting market roulette determine if and when they will build.

Last year, when asked to imagine architecture’s post-COVID future, USC architecture dean Milton Curry told me, “We have too long ceded decisions of development to the financial community. There needs to be more pressure on government to do things that are in the interest of the city.”

After a year in which a pandemic has created a chasm between haves and have-nots, it’s time to put that idea into practice.

COVID-19 has Thom Mayne, Michael Maltzan, Barbara Bestor, Rachel Allen and more Los Angeles architects rethinking design, from balconies to doorknobs.

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