Solair at Wilshire/Western in 2007. Photo: Damien Newton
Solair at Wilshire/Western in 2007. Photo: Damien Newton

Southern California Public Radio affiliate KPCC, in partnership with the Milken Institute, assembled a panel of experts Wednesday night to answer the question: can high-density housing solve the housing crisis currently facing L.A. County and California?

For those who have been following news about the crippling housing supply crisis in our region, it may not come as a surprise that there were no straight-forward answers to this question offered up over the course of the 90-minute discussion (available to watch here in its entirety), moderated by KPCC senior reporter covering housing, Josie Huang.

The five-person panel did, however, generate some interesting possibilities for the future of our region and how to address the skyrocketing rents and home prices that are driving middle- and low-income people out of Southern California and even the state.

Or, in the words of panelist, Larry Gross, the executive director Coalition for Economic Survival, how do we prevent “the people who run Los Angeles [from] being run out of Los Angeles”?

“I don’t think density in itself is neither the solution for affordable housing, nor is it the great evil that will destroy neighborhoods forever. It has to be done well, it has to be located right, designed right, planned out right,” said William Huang, director of housing for the city of Pasadena.

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Southern California’s historic aversion to density is clearly part of the problem, according to Professor of Architecture/Urban Design and Urban Planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs Dana Cuff, who was also on the panel.

“One of the reasons housing prices have gone up so much recently has to do with the fact that we can’t sprawl out any further,” said Cuff.

“It used to be that people went out of the city to look for cheaper and cheaper housing,” Cuff said, which has resulted in Southern California having the nation’s highest rates of “extreme commutes,” which means a commute of at least 90 minutes each way.

But as the region densifies, especially along our growing transit system, how can communities make sure that homes are homes built not just for the wealthy, but also for middle- and low-income households, who are more likely to ride transit on a day-to-day basis?

If we develop our transit system in the wrong way, we’ll have higher-income people moving along those transit corridors, who may use transit to commute to work, but not for their regular trips, and you [will] actually see a decline in ridership on the transit system,” said panelist Jeff Schaffer, vice president of Enterprise Community Partners.

“Phil Washington, the new head of Metro, has said if low income people are forced to move further away from transit, then he’s going to be obligated to build transit to get out to them,” he said. A step in the right direction, however, is Metro’s plan to assure that at least 35 percent of all new housing developed on Metro property be affordable.

“We have a lot of ideas in terms of solutions [to the housing affordability problem],” said Schaffer, “whether it’s through design innovation, planning and zoning changes…, a mix of subsidies, incentives, requirements.”

“What we really need is some kind of comprehensive plan that ties all these together and fundamentally, we need a societal commitment that every person in our community deserves a decent, safe, and sanitary place to live,” he said.

If we just leave it to market forces, we’ll see a “dismal performance” in terms of housing production for low-income people, he said.

It doesn’t help that city of Los Angeles has “the unfortunate distinction,” according to Schaffer, of being one of the few high-cost cities in the country that doesn’t have a local source for affordable housing subsidies. While there are state and federal funding sources available for affordable housing production — like cap-and-trade money, for example — without a local funding source, it is harder for municipalities to compete for that money.

That’s a problem, Gross said, as developers replace existing, affordable, and often rent-controlled units off the market and replace them with luxury units. He called for not only a “no net loss” policy with regards to affordable housing, but a “net gain” policy.

Pasadena, Huang said, has managed to find one solution. It is one of 11 cities in Los Angeles County that have inclusionary housing rules on the books, which require developers to build, as part of their market-rate developments, affordable housing. Santa Monica is another; voters in the beachside city adopted Proposition R in 1990, requiring that at least 30 percent of all new housing be affordable to middle-income (or lower) households.

Huang said, inclusionary zoning geographically distributes the housing and provides incentives for developers to produce low-income housing in desirable places, like near transit.

But, without a statewide rule clarifying individual cities’ rights to establish inclusionary zoning rules, the implementation is piecemeal throughout the region.

Political obstacles to density also remain, especially in the form of neighborhood NIMBYism.

“We have a very bad history in Los Angeles of the politics of density and affordable housing and that has contributed to our problem. Nobody wanted it in their neighborhood even though it was them that would qualify,” said Cuff.

But that’s largely due to misconceptions about what density means. It doesn’t mean Manhattan, though that’s often what people think, said Cuff.

There are a million single-family homes in Los Angeles, she said. If 20 percent of them were allowed to create an additional unit, it would surpass L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s goal of adding 120,000 new homes.

That would require rethinking some of the zoning requirements currently in place specifically designed to be barriers to certain types of housing models, including onerous parking requirements. Downtown Los Angeles’ adaptive reuse ordinance, which waived parking requirements for developers who wanted to repurpose underutilized office buildings as housing, is a prime example of how legislative change can produce thriving neighborhoods, she said.

“Of course we have to become more dense. We should be distributing that density across all neighborhoods in the city,” she said. “Every neighborhood council should take its share of housing.”

“If we shifted the American dream from being the single-family house to having every household have a house, it would be a way of developing options in the residential landscape,” Cuff said, adding that the diversity of housing options should reflect the economic diversity of region.

Over the course of the pane discussion, the audience participated in a twitter conversation under #AffordableCA. Read their comments here.

Wednesday’s panel was the first in KPCC’s series, “Rescuing the California Dream: Policies for an Affordable Future.” The series is co-presented by KPCC/Southern California Public Radio and the Milken Institute.