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Awesome and Affordable: Making the Case for Great Housing

When Brenda Mendoza told an NPR reporter about her commute to work, she became the face of the housing crisis in Los Angeles today. Mendoza, a uniform attendant at a Marriott hotel, was living with her family in an apartment in Koreatown, where she had grown up, 10 minutes from her job. The landlord raised the rent, so she moved to a less costly place in Downey. When that rent also rose out of reach, she moved to Apple Valley, and now gets up at 3:30 a.m. to drive 100 miles to her job, dropping off her husband and son at their jobs on the way. She did not move to Apple Valley to invest in a house she could love. She simply found an equally unstable, but slightly more affordable, rental hours from her workplace. 

This is the California dream turned Dickensian dystopia, the outcome of the 20th century mode of land-use planning in which flowing freeways and cheap, virgin land meant that housing could be decoupled from proximity to work, homeowners could sleep comfortably knowing service workers had a home somewhere, and the L.A. garden city model of low-rise, mostly single-family living could continue indefinitely. 

Now that planning model has reached the end of the road, and the region is increasingly divided into the affluent and comfortably housed and the impoverished and unhoused, while many working poor and middle income Angelenos pick up and leave. The situation is so untenable that population watchers currently project a drop in residents in California, especially from the Southland, due to factors including outmigration to more affordable housing markets. L.A., the city of the future, is on a fast track to becoming a gerontocracy. 

The nonprofit Holos Communities and Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects optimize a challenging site to build Isla Intersections, 53 new one-bedroom permanent supportive housing units. Photo by Eric Staudenmaier.


Yet homes are being built. Apartments and condo buildings are going up in the thousands on our thoroughfares and in our downtowns. We see them on Venice Boulevard, on Lincoln, on La Brea at Wilshire, in Hollywood. Unfortunately, many of these dwellings are out of reach for Mendoza and her family. They’re filled with studios and one-bedroom units, excluding young families or larger households, and they cost far more than the wages of a hotel worker can cover. Furthermore, an alarming number of them lack charm and local character, appearing like cliff faces of sheetrock and stucco, stacked over sometimes empty retail spaces, with balconies facing onto several lanes of traffic. They could be found in Anywhere, America, and they give the impression that new housing in L.A. today is neither affordable nor desirable. No wonder Angelenos feel baffled and frustrated, and lament: Why are the streets filled with people without shelter? Why can’t I afford a place to live? And what are these slabs of new housing, and who are they for?

Amid this bleak picture, though, are models of residential aspiration, diamonds in the rough: complexes of dwellings that don’t break the bank for the resident, that offer long-term rental stability for singles and families, that have greenery and shared and private open space, that include amenities from community gardens to rooftop BBQs, and that demonstrate architectural flourish. They are built primarily, but not exclusively, by idealistic nonprofit developers in tandem with equally utopian design teams. Sometimes they are bright new buildings modeling new technologies and styles. Or they are renovated or adaptively reused old buildings. Yes, these homes are generally in taller, denser buildings, but this scale is handled with flair. They are more social, oriented toward shared space and the street, closer to transit or to workplaces; in sum, they are homes for Angelenos in the 21st century, not the last one, and at a manageable price. These “diamonds” are the inspiration for a new initiative we call Awesome and Affordable: Great Housing Now.

The 1928 Castle Argyle in Hollywood—affordable senior housing run by HumanGood—was recently renovated and adapted by Relativity Architects for Beacon Development. Photo by Tom Bonner.


Awesome and Affordable: Great Housing Now is a year-long, new media project aimed at advancing understanding and appreciation for affordable housing: how it’s funded, produced, and designed. What are its challenges and its benefits? There’s a lot that is confusing about affordable housing, starting with the meaning of “affordable.” You have probably read articles about the high cost of construction of housing using government funds or the lack of a dent in the numbers of homelessness, or even some scandalous stories about one or two bad actors in the industry. You may have wondered why a new low-income complex in your neighborhood is so much bigger than neighboring buildings. Or why it is displacing some older, rent-controlled homes. Perhaps you or a family member wants to live somewhere “affordable” but don’t know how or where to start looking. This project aims to answer all this and offer hope and tools for all those who feel that housing in L.A. is an insolvable mess, and that the dream that brought so many people here has simply evaporated. Though centered on Los Angeles, we feel the case studies, lessons learned, and positive movements can be applied elsewhere, as housing and homelessness have become national issues. 

This project is sponsored by Friends of Residential Treasures: Los Angeles (FORT: LA), a nonprofit organization that offers public events aimed at reinforcing collective pride in our buildings while “communing with the DNA of Los Angeles,” in the words of FORT: LA’s founder, Russell Brown. FORT: LA supports research and, given the urgency of L.A.’s housing needs, has chosen to investigate affordable housing and unearth examples that belong in the pantheon of L.A.’s residential gems.

What Do We Mean by Affordable and Awesome?

What, exactly, do we mean by “affordable” housing? Affordable Housing with capital AH pertains to a specific type of subsidized housing. However, the lower-case term (affordable housing) is meant as rent or housing that one can afford. You may earn too much to be eligible for most subsidized housing, but not enough to afford a market-rate home. This means that much housing becomes unaffordable, and so you look for space at rental rates that are “attainable.” Experts are trying to figure out how to create low-rise, low-density multifamily complexes at “attainable” prices. This scale of housing is also referred to as “the missing middle.” Awesome and Affordable will showcase studies with examples of “attainable” homes in “the missing middle.”

Watts Works is a permanent supportive housing complex of 24 studio units made of 58 shipping containers that was designed by Studio One Eleven for Decro Corporation and Daylight Community Development Corporation. Photo by Paul Vu.


Now, how about “awesome”? Awesome means many things, but the common thread here is a housing complex that, through good design and thoughtful care, becomes special, which is quite an achievement given a multiplicity of limitations attached to the construction of affordable housing. It’s a low-rise complex of studios with architectural character, natural light and breezes, and pockets of private space. Public housing that has been retrofitted to include an urban farm and murals of the residents. The apartment building by a train station that still makes space for a quiet garden, a dog run, and play space for the kids. It can be the place that makes the best of a very bad lot: the housing close to the freeway that absorbs pollution with abundant greenery and keeps car noise at bay with clever design strategies. It’s a densely packed, multistory, multi-unit building that softens its impact on the cityscape with stepped-back levels, decorative facades, and careful interior planning to allow in natural light and air. Or a mixed-use, mixed-income building whose ground-level retail spaces serve as small business incubators for the residents, offering economic opportunity to the tenants and an amenity to the surrounding neighborhood. Essentially, it is great design and livability that have been forged despite extreme constraints. This is not housing in the form of massive scale, utopian urban renewal. It is infill, project by project, adding up to a new vision of housing. 

Awesome and Affordable consists of several parts: first, this introduction, from which this article is excerpted (see the full version linked above for more history); then 12 awesome projects that represent ways housing at reasonable cost is achieved in today’s Los Angeles, from Affordable Housing by nonprofit developers through to dwellings at below-market-rate produced in the private sector. We have chosen buildings that model a strong solution to a big challenge in affordable housing, such as doing density well, or using modular construction highly effectively to streamline costs without losing livability. We describe what makes our monthly selection so awesome, as well as the complex and often challenging journey to achieve it. We conclude each case study with a call to action—things you can do to push for more housing of this type or quality. 

This 64-unit 100% affordable housing project was the inclusionary piece of a market-rate development designed by Koning Eizenberg Architecture for nonprofit developer Community Corporation of Santa Monica. Photo by Eric Staudenmaier.


We also provide you with the Housing Terminology Playbook of terms unpacking all the policies, laws, and players that produce housing. The Los Angeles housing market looks and costs the way it does thanks to a complicated ecosystem of laws, codes, costs, politics, and policies, involving an evolving cast of characters seeking influence. They speak a language full of jargon and acronyms. After all, the following is the kind of thing you might read or hear in a discussion about housing: 


SCAG’s RHNA means cities have to produce a Housing Element stating how many units they will produce. A percentage must be affordable, which is costly and complicated to build, so SCANPH has pushed for ULA to solve some of the issues with HHH. Cities are asking for inclusionary zoning in TOC so developers want density bonuses, which are making buildings so high that LCI would like to see some lower density, missing middle housing but that requires Vertical Access Reform.


Did you understand any of that? Very likely not. Does it have anything to do with the life and soul of buildings and the people who live in them? Hard to tell. Having the tools to navigate all of this helps figure out how to make housing that does nourish life, soul, and the cityscape. If you understand the machinery and the terminology behind the buildings, it’s easier to chime in confidently in discussions about them, perhaps to speak to your local representatives, and to support the kind of housing that will enrich your community. 

Brooks + Scarpa designed Rose Apartments, which consists of 35 units of supportive housing over offices for the building’s owner, the nonprofit developer Venice Community Housing. Photo by Jeff Durkin/Breadtruck Films.


Reframing Affordable Housing

When FORT: LA’s Russell Brown threw out the draft name for this research, “awesome and affordable,” we initially thought it would be a placeholder until we came up with something more serious. But the more we ran the phrase by people and saw them smile, we realized it was exactly the right title, because it conferred the notion of greatness on a sector of housing that is often treated as an irritant. We believe that housing should not be demeaning, nor should it diminish our cityscape. This time of crisis and opportunity in Los Angeles—and around the nation—is the moment to demand beauty and humanity in design, regardless of income.

This essay is adapted from Awesome and Affordable: Great Housing Now, a program sponsored by Friends of Residential Architecture: Los Angeles (FORT: LA) and supported by Taylor & Company. For more information and to subscribe to the monthly “Awesome Building of the Month” newsletter, visit

Feature image: Las Flores is a 100% affordable, 73-unit apartment building designed by DE Architects and built by Community Corporation of Santa Monica. Photo by John Linden.


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