A Conversation with Michael Maltzan: Lessons on Affordable Housing

On Tuesday October 20th we had the pleasure of hosting LA architect Michael Maltzan for our second Lunch with a Leader this semester. We were also lucky to have our own wonderful “architect-in-house” Professor Liz Falleta as our moderator. Mr. Maltzan walked us through some of his most impactful projects, some we highlighted previously: from the Star Apartments project with the Skid Row Housing Trust, to his plans and designs for the much anticipated 6th Street Bridge project.

After his remarks, we had a chance to open the conversation and talk more in depth about design, innovation, urbanism, and policy in Los Angeles. A recurrent theme in this conversation was housing, and particularly affordable housing. Affordable housing is a key and pressing issue, especially in LA, so it was no surprise that it was a theme in talking architecture, design, and policy.

Michael Maltzan and Liz Falletta

“The first thing in my mind is absolutely starting with leadership at the governmental level. Building housing needs to be a mandate. It needs to be something that is at the very top of the priority list and conversation in this city.”

When asked about the challenges of developing affordable housing from the perspective of architecture, and about what can be done from the policy side to alleviate the problem, these are some of the insights that Michael Maltzan shared with us:

Roadblocks to building or developing affordable housing

Culture of architecture

He first identified as a problem the way that some architects approach affordable housing projects, stating that as a discipline architecture has yet to really understand its role and potential to contribute to these types of project.  “Architecture has not embraced its role in this context,  or its responsibility to bring its capabilities to bear in a way that developers [of affordable housing] can understand. Very often we come to the table with things which are of secondary or tertiary importance, so that they seem almost frivolous given the problem that’s confronting these nonprofit developers especially.” He said that the first step is to understand what architecture can bring to the table and its potential to make a difference in these projects.

Funding Structure

“Affordable housing is a type of development where the funding mechanisms for the developers are constantly shifting, because there isn’t a clear funding stream as it comes in many other countries –directly from the government to a NGO or a specific nonprofit development agency– and that makes it very difficult.”

To illustrate this point he offered the example of the Housing Trust, a nonprofit development organization he has worked with, and how they relied on a tax-credit sale system to gain funds for their developments. Once the recession hit and organizations and individuals were not as interested in purchasing these tax credits they quickly depleted their funding within the span of six months.

“So they had to scramble to find other funding mechanisms. And that [struggle] has been fairly constant: every time they more or less develop a system of how they’re going to do it, the ball gets moved. That means very often that the structure of what they’re trying to build– the size, the scale, the geography, the tenant group–that changes. That makes it difficult to keep a constant conversation going.”

Differing Opinions

“There are a lot of issues in the city around just how much the city wants to support affordable housing really, and there are wildly different opinions about that. There are some people that are absolutely adamant; the mayor is now talking more and more about building many units and that’s starting to gain some traction. There are many people who are very much behind it, so you have a huge advantage but there are many people who are not.” He provided the example of some of the city’s council members that represent districts where residents don’t want affordable housing units in their neighborhoods.

Problems that are cultural in nature

He talked about how another problem that they started to encounter with the Housing Project was that it was becoming so successful in developing these types of units in certain neighborhoods, that though the different buildings were being added one by one, they  were slowly starting to recreate the projects.

“Their success had the danger of balkanizing a whole community again, of putting a line around and saying ‘that’s where we put affordable housing’. So being able to move across these lines and understand that it’s a larger city challenge, that is a cultural problem.

There are of course technical problems: ‘how do you build a building for not that much money?’. But architects have more than enough capability, smarts, ingenuity to pull that off given a reasonable runway to do that, and a directive to do that. The real problems tend to be cultural issues.”

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Policy Approaches to addressing affordable housing roadblocks

Leadership

“The first thing in my mind is absolutely starting with leadership at the governmental level. Building housing needs to be a mandate. It needs to be something that is at the very top of the priority list and conversation in this city.” He highlighted the importance of building more housing for the long term health and growth of the city as something that needs to be better explained and exposed.

Changing Cultural Norms

He also highlighted the importance of changing cultural norms and views about what affordable housing is and showing how important it is to the city. He charged that there are too many people in LA that see affordable housing as something that is undesirable in their neighborhoods,  in part because of the strong focus of development on the single family house.

An idealized notion and prioritization of this type of  low density development have created a culture that is not conducive to the types of transformations in housing that the city needs to increase affordability. “So literally I think you have to develop an image, a story, an idea that can be held across culturally of why this is a really beneficial and desirable thing for the city.”

Cross-Agency Cooperation and Integration

Maltzan explained that as the city becomes more dense, complexities in dealing with the need for more housing will arise. He pointed out a main issue, “currently there is no person, no mechanism that can work across agencies. There is no entity that can bring agencies into the room together, moving in a way that gets you to the goal line.” He highlighted the importance of such a mechanism when many of the neighborhoods in the city that have a lot of potential for development, the ones that that would be clearly profitable and desirable to build in, are often difficult areas to develop. This might be because of the regulatory landscape, or more simply for lack of access in terms of construction and logistics.

“If there is anything that is important in this city is to develop at a legislative level, at an individual level, some mechanism to get these groups to work together. It would be helpful to have that even just to begin to identify who those groups are that need to be involved in any particular project. To produce something that really represents everybody, somebody has to also work at a very high level to bring those different groups in a room together, to move them forward.”

 

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