News
01.19.2010
A Question of TIme
Architects struggle with the tight schedules of low-income housing
A rendering of Michael Maltzan's Star Apartments, whose prefab elements should help keep construction time down.
Courtesy Michael Maltzan Architecture

In the past few years, this paper has reported on the excellent architecture being produced in California’s low-income and homeless supportive housing sector, from Michael Maltzan’s New Carver Apartments to David Baker’s Folsom Dore Supportive Apartments. While creating these projects is always challenging given their limited resources, the challenge that architects complain about more than any other is the intense time crunch inherent in such work, and the pressure this puts on the quality of their work.

Most low-income housing projects are funded through low-income tax credits, in which projects are given a strict time limit for construction—usually between 18 months and two years. This, say many, is too short to keep standards high, and puts undue pressure on a client to stick with a set team, even if that team isn’t up to par.

“In some sense, the contractor has carte blanche because time is what rules,” said Larry Scarpa, principal at Pugh + Scarpa, who has built several affordable housing projects. Scarpa talks about contractors who have poured slabs without rebar in them, and those who have forgotten to put in light recesses. Each time, due to time constraints, those elements weren’t fixed and the contractors remained. “The owner ultimately has to decide whether to tear something out, not finish on time, and lose $10 million.”

Daly Genik's recently completed Tahiti Housing Complex in Santa Monica.
Tim Griffith

“They get locked in with contractors and they are reluctant to jump ship with them later,” agreed Julie Eizenberg, whose firm Koning Eizenberg has worked on many similar projects. She said she respects clients’ efforts in such a money-crunched field but feels there’s a limit to what can be achieved. “A lot of them are well-intentioned, but frankly they’re exhausted. There’s only so much stuff they can fight for.”

Tod Lipka, CEO of Step Up on Second, a supportive housing nonprofit in Santa Monica, adds that tight timelines not only hurt quality but also narrow options. He points to an instance in which his organization wanted a variance to remove underground parking from a project, since the homeless tenants didn’t have cars. After pursuing the variance for six months, the group had to abandon it because they needed to begin construction to keep their funding.

Federal low-income tax credits are allocated by the state treasurer’s California Tax Credit Allocation Committee. The timelines, points out treasury spokesman Joe DeAnda, are determined on the federal level, and are meant to avoid cost escalations, to get people into needed housing quickly, and to avoid problems on the back end.

“We don’t want to award credits to people who aren’t going to meet those deadlines,” DeAnda said. “There may be gripes, but this weeds out all but the most serious projects.” Projects are scored on the basis of readiness, affordability, number of units, and financing availability. They generally have 150 days to be construction-ready. They have two years from the award date to be built. “There are plenty who meet this deadline, so I wouldn’t say it’s a hindrance,” he said.

Joan Ling, executive director of the Community Corporation of Santa Monica, who has worked with Pugh + Scarpa, Daly Genik, and Stephen Kanner, added: “If they give you money and you just dawdle and don’t produce, that’s opportunity cost lost,” she said. “Hire good architects and good contractors so you don’t get into a bind.”

Some architects working in the field say they haven’t felt the time crunch at all. “I think you can plan around it and it shouldn’t be a problem,” said Richard Stacy of San Francisco firm Leddy Maytum Stacy, another supportive housing veteran. “It shouldn’t be that tight.”

Sam Lubell