Los Angeles launches design challenge seeking new models of affordable, low-rise housing

Return of the L.A. Low-Rise

Los Angeles launches design challenge seeking new models of affordable, low-rise housing

A historic bungalow court, an early model of low-rise multi-family housing in Southern California, at 1544 North Serrano Avenue in Hollywood. (downtowngal/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

The office of Los Angeles Mayor (and possible cabinet member of the incoming Biden administration) Eric Garcetti and Christopher Hawthorne, Chief Design Officer for the City of Los Angeles, have launched a $100,000 design challenge that invites architects and landscape architects to imagine progressive, appealing models of low-rise, multi-family housing in America’s second-most populous city. With a focus on affordability, sustainability, and “confronting historical patterns of racial and environmental injustice in housing policy in Southern California,” the free-to-enter Low Rise: Housing Ideas for Los Angeles challenge is supported by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the James Irvine Foundation, and Citi.

Proposals must be submitted by February 21 and can be entered into one of the following (mostly self-explanatory) categories: Fourplex, Subdivision, Corners, and (Re)Distribution, the last of which encourages participants to choose an iconic L.A. home (a la the Hollyhock House) from a provided list and divide it into four housing units. In addition to a $10,000 top prize awarded within each category, second and third prize awards—$3,500 and $1,500, respectively—will also be bestowed within each. All and all, 12 cash prizes are up for grabs (honorable mentions are also a possibility) and entrants can submit different proposals to more than one category. The winners will be featured in a publication to be released later in 2021.

As detailed in an overview of the challenge, organizers are loath to refer to Low Rise as a design competition “at least in the traditional sense” as it boasts qualities that set it apart from “earlier efforts to engage architects in sketching out design proposals for new models of low-rise housing.” Most notably, Low Rise was initiated as part of a larger research undertaking spearheaded by the Mayor’s Office of Budget and Innovation, supported by the James Irvine Foundation in collaboration with Urban Institute and other partners, that explores “new paths to homeownership and new models of affordability in low-rise neighborhoods across Los Angeles.” The challenge is informed by the research project and, once the former wraps up, it will influence the latter.

What also differentiates Low Rise from standard design competitions is that the “typical formula” is reversed. In lieu of architects coming to communities with solidified ideas as to “what housing should look like,” community members, via listening sessions, have already had the first say in how they think new models of low-rise housing should take form. (This input is provided as a key resource in the challenge brief.)

“The result is that communities are explaining to the participating architects what they’d like to see in their neighborhoods and asking for their help in turning those ideas into a series of design proposals. We are not collecting architectural ideas and then workshopping them with the public. Instead, we began by workshopping with community and housing-advocacy leaders a set of questions and hypotheses about how they and their neighbors would like to see their communities grow. Now, with those workshops complete, we are presenting the results to the design challenge participants.”

As the overview notes: “… the designs that emerge from our effort will represent a step—an important one, we hope, but a single step nonetheless—in the direction of a more inclusive and wide-ranging discussion in Los Angeles” about housing issues such a redlining and exclusionary lending. The results will also play a crucial role in a larger process that reimagines “what it means to live the good life in Southern California—and to understand the ways in which the good life, to be good for everyone, must also be sustainable and equitable.”

According to challenge organizers, low-rise districts currently make up three-quarters of residentially zoned land in L.A. while 400,000 residential lots, regardless of zoning, are comprised of single-family homes. Exacerbated by COVID-19-related slowdowns, construction of all multifamily apartment projects in affordable housing-strapped L.A. is on track to hit a five-year low by the end of 2020.

The challenge also details the particular appeal of low-rise multi-family housing (three-to-four units per lot or six-to-eight units spread across adjacent lots, all limited to one or two stories) in the coronavirus era. While then-innovative examples of this typology—L.A.’s historic wealth of (Pasadena-borne) bungalow courts and garden apartments, included—flourished in the city between the late-19th-century and World War II and were largely geared toward the working-class residents, they eventually fell out of favor as single-family-centric sprawl set in.

“Low-rise multifamily housing offers a way to add units at a significant volume while also providing immediate access to gardens and other shared outdoor spaces, where socializing is less dangerous than interiors when it comes to COVID-19,” reads the overview. “It gives residents places to quarantine—in second, third, or fourth units separate from a main house, for example—without leaving the household or neighborhood altogether.”

There’s plenty more to pore over at the Low Rise website including particulars about registration, resources, and further background as to how the challenge and its complementary research initiative aim to strengthen communities and usher in a new era of resilient, attainable, and low-slung housing in L.A.