Is the Los Angeles Housing Market missing it’s “Middle”?

January 10, 2018

Los Angeles is a city of houses. This has long been a core tenet of our sprawling megalopolis, celebrating the single-family home as its preferred and predominant housing type since inception. However, as the densest city in the nation, this is no longer a sustainable model. We see the effects of strained infrastructure and reduced quality of life all around us – Los Angeles recently dropped to number 58 in the latest “Quality of Living” city-ranking list published by global investment consultant Mercer.

This need not be the case. While there are many holdouts determined to perpetrate their vision of the American Dream, a significant segment of the population would prefer to live in vibrant, thriving, hip villages within their communities. Many of us would prefer to have shops, schools and jobs nearby rather than migrate to the suburbs, if the option were readily available.

In Los Angeles, the massive proliferation of the single-family home has led to the sprawl we see today. Hi-rises, while effective investment vehicles that fill a gap in our housing needs, nevertheless fail to create the diverse social networks desired by many transitioning from a single-family home culture. Current planning and zoning laws however often restrict the ability to develop “Missing Middle” housing types which foster the traditional diversity of uses once common in older cities. A diversity that allowed people to attend school, play, shop, work and live without having to drive.

The development of significantly more “Missing Middle” housing is required to meet the growing demand for desirable, walkable urban villages in our city. “Missing Middle” refers to the broad range of multi-unit housing types such as Town homes, Row housing, Live-Work housing, Mid-Rise housing and Mixed-Use developments that fall between the single-family and hi-rise poles. Typical building types in this genre have the following commonalities;

  • Thoughtful, efficiently imagined, comfortable and usable smaller units, designed for an urban context with less off-street parking.
  • Perceived lower density with relatively small footprint per unit – 16 to 40 units per acre.
  • Sense of community, with a walkable context, that is supportive of transit and neighbourhood services.

These housing types often provide similar lifestyle benefits to single-family homes, albeit without the private yard and picket fence. This amenity rich housing type gives residents the opportunity to be part of a social network, bringing together age diverse communities, rather than creating isolated environments with similar aged cohorts.

Increased development of thoughtful, design-led “Missing Middle” housing is key to meeting the shifting demographics of Los Angeles and the new demands of the marketplace.

Allowing more offices, apartments and other mixed uses above retail shops and restaurants in residential neighbourhoods helps unify streetscapes while diversifying available choices for a wide variety of households of varying socio-economic status, age and size. These diverse, smaller households tend to keep varied hours and eat out more, contributing to vibrant, safer streets, with better restaurants, bars, shops, services and amenities.

Since the 1940’s however, auto-centric planning, zoning constraints and promotion of The American Dream – two cars and a backyard for all – have led to very little “Missing Middle” housing being built in Los Angeles, relative to the scale of population growth seen in the region. Although updates to the zoning codes and passing of ordinances such as the Small Lot Subdivision Ordinance in 2004 are steps in the right direction, we are not doing nearly enough, fast enough, to deal with the rapid demographic shift taking place. Ultimately, successful execution of “Missing Middle” development will require land-use planners to urgently focus on the needs of all residents, not just those ensconced in their well situated single-family home. It will require developers to pay more heed to design-led planning and architecture, with aesthetics, functionality and choice finding a symbiotic balance in their projects.

The market exists. The idea of what the American Dream consists of is rapidly changing. There is strong demand for sustainable, diverse, walkable, vibrant villages interspersed throughout our communities. This is not a passing fad, but rather a definitive shift back to cohesive urbanization. What will it take to get past the NIMBYism and collectively move towards the next stage of development in this great city? Will we work together responsibly, efficiently and effectively to make this happen in a timely manner? Will we think differently, fast-tracking rezoning and approvals, or is this another hot potato we will pass on to the millennials and their children?

/ CATEGORIES: Robert Quigg’s Blog