28th St YMCA Apartments welcomed Mayor Eric Garcetti as it sets the standard for affordable housing in Los Angeles

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Los Angeles–written by James Rodriguez Daza. Affordable housing and the effort to reduce homelessness in Southern California received the spotlight recently when Los Angeles county residents voted last year, to pass two key bond measures–Measures H and HHH. Measure H authorized the county to take a quarter of the revenues from the county sales tax to fund social services directed toward the homeless population and residents who are at risk of becoming homeless. Measure HHH authorized $1.2 billion in bonds to be allocated toward funding housing for them. Included in the measure is providing facilities that would offer mental healthcare and addiction treatment services as well as other social services requiring the purchase, building and/or remodeling of said facilities from which residents could access them. Approximately 10,000 units are expected to be provided due to the measure in LA County where an estimated 47,000 residents are listed as homeless according to the LA County Housing Authority. Before the latest bond measures were approved though, existing permanent housing projects that were designed to cater to this specific population were already on the books but awaiting city approval. Coming off the release of a 2016 county-wide initiative that addressed specific strategies toward reducing homelessness for Los Angeles, county officials, non-profit developers and community organizations had collaborated to modernize existing buildings targeted to greatly benefit sections in the county where large homeless populations have been identified.

Among the numerous actors involved in the melee, Mayor Eric Garcetti had helped lead the charge sticking to his campaign promise of addressing and reducing the homeless situation in Los Angeles. During his State of the City address on April 20, 2017, he reiterated his commitment and announced that $176 million from his proposed budget for the new fiscal year would go to funding housing projects for the homeless as well as pushing a city council proposal to create an Affordable Housing Linkage fee from which an estimated $100 million would be raised every year in addition to funds allocated for affordable housing that would raise an additional yearly $300 million to the monies expected to be provided through the recently approved measures. Construction projects like the East Hollywood PATH Metro Villas are already well under way setting, what some would hope, a new standard for how housing the homeless population should proceed. New construction for it broke ground on that same day with the mayor making the ceremonial gesture of shoveling the area where construction will eventually begin. This among other development projects are receiving new attention as a result of the recent approvals for Measures H and HHH reopening the discussion of LA’s growing affordable housing issues and its homeless crisis.

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Riding on the laurels of the successful vote on the measures, Mayor Garcetti had been touring several affordable housing projects throughout Los Angeles to see the progress the city has made in meeting the challenge of helping the disenfranchised acquire permanent housing and needed social services in order to stay off the streets. During the weekend following his State of the City address, he had recently visited the 28th St YMCA Apartments where Clifford Beers Housing had worked tirelessly to upgrade the “historic-cultural” monument in order to provide the chronically homeless with permanent housing. Greeting members from 40 different neighborhood councils from all over Los Angeles who were also present at the 28th St Apartment complex, Mayor Garcetti took a private tour of the 5-year old facility marveling at the 50-unit complex while congratulating staff for their hard work and commitment to serving the community’s homeless. The tour took him to a common room where pictures of African American architect, Paul Revere Williams, were displayed honoring his contributions to the industry of architecture including his original design for the YMCA building from which Clifford Beers had redeveloped. A small entourage of both his staff and Clifford Beers accompanied him as rooms were surveyed on a couple of floors while basking in the sun from the open patio area overlooking Downtown LA. Mayor Garcetti, pleasantly enjoying his visit, met with one of the apartment’s residents, Kajohnae Cannon, who was present during the ribbon-cutting ceremony of 28th St when the doors officially opened to receive residents. Ms. Cannon was one of many who first moved in during the complex’s inaugural months in 2012. Friendly exchanges were made between the two and the young 27-year old even showed the mayor her apartment as her pet white Maltese energetically played with her new guests. After a brief conversation, they parted ways allowing the mayor to complete his tour. Before leaving 28th St Apartments, Mayor Garcetti gave the visiting neighborhood council members, whom he had invited to attend the complex, a warm and congratulatory talk about the work that has been accomplished so far and their significance in it.

He encouraged them to continue to be a part of this collaborative process. For example, he was reminiscing of when he used to play basketball at this very same YMCA not so long ago and how he remembered what it looked like then. He was pleased that Clifford Beers still retained the building’s historic design while enhancing other features. “…the new part of this building is a bridge to the past and the future,” he commented. “In many ways that’s what we’re asking you to do and to be today. That aspiration of [bringing together] the past, present and future.“ Many in the room nodded affirming their understanding of his message. He continued to give Clifford Beers accolades for its continued efforts to help the homeless secure permanent housing. “Clifford Beers is one of the most outstanding organizations in putting together youth outreach programs and working together in housing and piecing together this historic YMCA that was designed by architects who are a part of LA history… [We] have a Work Source center and outreach programs here. It’s a place to help find jobs and housing. It’s an inspiration. Thank you for opening your doors to us.” His most poignant message to visitors however was the work that remains to help Los Angeles significantly reduce homelessness:

“…I’m going to meet with 25 mayors this weekend from around the country as part of a fellowship with the Aspen Institute where we take off our ties and get in a room like this, close the doors, no press, and get to talk about how we’re tapping into resources to discuss how to tackle this issue of homelessness….This is the defining moral issue of our time….We have a city with so much momentum right now. It’s undeniable. I asked myself, ‘What sense did I get from the State of the City?’ It’s undeniably strong. Record jobs. Record training. Record investment. Record visitors. Recording housing started all of this. But I said to myself, economic success isn’t a measure of a city. It’s who is the most vulnerable and how do we help them….I don’t feel we’re completely strong until we have a city with no encampments. A city with less traffic. A city with good schools. Those things that it’s nice to say ‘I’m doing better’, but if somebody else isn’t, we’re not alright.”

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According to Clifford Beers Housing’s Marketing and Public Relations director, Claire Okeke, the 28th St Apartment complex took 4 years to acquire the necessary funding (a typical length of time for affordable housing) to modernize the YMCA building installing sustainable, eco-friendly measures and an additional 17 months to complete the work on it. Funding sources for the project came from the Mental Services Act capital loan, a predevelopment loan from the Corporation of Supportive Housing, the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, the Los Angeles Housing Department, the Mental Health Services Act operating subsidy, the Community Development Block Grant/Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD), the Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles, and the Affordable Housing Program. Permanent funding sources also included a trust fund from the Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment Department Trust Fund, and the federal 9% tax credit also provides additional permanent financing—an estimated $19,700,000 of permanent funding. Overall, the total cost of development amounted to approximately $24,300,000.

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Despite the relatively low-cost on the work Clifford Beers had invested in it, the quality of the construction is so well done that visitors would assume the costs would’ve been much higher, which is a testament to the quality of the construction performed. Partnering with the Coalition for Responsible Community Development, Clifford Beers had contracted Koning Eizenberg Architecture, a Santa Monica-based architecture firm renowned for its work on “adaptive reuse of historic buildings, education facilities and community housing,” to modernize the famed YMCA facility building on Paul William’s historic design. In fact, Brian Lane of Koning Eizenberg was present during the day of the mayor’s tour to talk with the neighborhood council members about the design of the complex’s modernization and answer any questions they may have. The real challenge for the developers, according to Mrs. Okeke, was to preserve the history and culture of the community which the building originally had reflected while keeping the building up to code. Initially, the units were 85-110 sqft with a shared bathroom on each floor including a cafeteria on the second floor. Currently, Los Angeles building standards no longer allow for those conditions. Both city and county laws require that each unit have its own bathroom. As such, the development team and Koning Eizenberg converted the 50-unit apartments into 24 apartments with their own bathrooms and kitchenettes, and an addition was constructed to the rear of the complex to include the remaining 26 apartments. The size of each studio-style apartment now ranges from 300-800 sqft with a ground floor space of 8,000 sqft to accommodate on-site 24/7 social services. A single, studio apartment is now available for the property manager. The John Stewart Company handles the property management for the building itself. Solar photovoltaic panels and solar thermal heating were added. Other energy-efficient features like energy and water efficient fixtures, green roofs, erosion control, local drought-tolerant landscape, and bike parking adjacent to local public transit were included earning the building a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED ) Gold rating. In addition, 28th St Apartments had also won a multitude of other awards that include:

A+ Jury’s Choice Award for Architecture and Preservation” by Architizer (2016)
National Honor Award for Architecture” by AIA National (2015)
Preservation Award” by Los Angeles Conservancy (2013)
Award of Excellence” in the Mutli-Family Housing category from the Los Angeles Business Council (2013)
Westside Prize Multi Unit Housing HONOR Award” by Westside Urban Forum (2013)
Historic Preservation Award” by City of Los Angeles (2013)
Preservation Design Award” in the Rehabilitation category by California Preservation Foundation (2013)
Merit Award” in the Architecture category by AIA California Council (2013)
Housing Award” at the World Architecture Festival in Singapore (2013)
Honor Award” for Excellence in Architectural Design by AIA Los Angeles (2013)
Special Needs Project of the Year Award” by SCANPH (2013)

“They did an amazing job on 28th St and they’re able to make it look beautiful and functional and make it great. It’s extremely well-designed and seemed like it cost a lot more than it did but on a very tight budget. So, we’re thankful to them for being able to do that. They have a really big heart to be willing to do this because it’s important and meaningful to do the type of work that’s not just about the bottom-line,” said Mrs. Okeke.

Residency is limited primarily to serve the chronically homeless with mental health conditions, but some flexibility has been made available to serve certain low-income applicants too. Many applicants are referred by the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health. Approximately, thirty apartments specifically house such referrals. The remaining units, designated “general affordable apartments,” have been reserved to house low-income applicants. Applicants in this pool are not required to have a mental health condition. Instead, they must show that their income is at or less than 50% of the area median income (the household median income of a region as calculated by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development for each metropolitan region in the country). With respect to Los Angeles, the area median income for a household of 4 is at $62,300.

The public response to the apartment complex so far had been positive and well-received. In fact, the mayor had invited the members of the neighborhood councils to attend the facility and encouraged them to take a tour in order to see what a beautifully constructed, fully-functioning, successful affordable housing complex looks like. Essentially, he wanted to display 28th St Apartments as a beacon, a model for what his vision of affordable permanent housing would be to help the chronically homeless in Los Angeles, and he wanted to empower the same neighborhood councils to open up to his vision in order to invite similar projects in their neighborhoods like Clifford Beer’s King 1101 Apartments, which is currently under development on the corner of Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd and Vermont. Ultimately, the mayor and partnering non-profit developers like Clifford Beers Housing are working to do away with the public misconception of what an affordable housing facility really is and how it does not negatively affect the surrounding communities in which it resides. According to Mrs. Okeke, a negative connotation accompanies the concept of “The Projects”. It depicts the idea that crime, drugs, unsavory characters, and poorly maintained, unattractive buildings are the fundamental characteristics that normally follow an affordable housing development which hinders the community and contributes to lowering property values. She emphasized that the prevailing misconception is not an accurate picture; on the contrary, the inverse (especially in the case of Clifford Beers Housing projects) is actually a truer representation of what is meant by an affordable housing apartment complex. “For us, we make sure to hire really high quality on-site 24/7 property management as well as service providers who work there at the building who help the residents remind them of their roles and keep the place looking nice and help the residents make good decisions for themselves. We also focus on good design. The building starts out beautiful and stays beautiful. The residents also help contribute to the community and the wider neighborhoods. Our research shows that property values continue to increase in the neighborhoods that have affordable housing.”

Empirical evidence on the subject of the impact affordable housing has on neighboring property values does indeed support her claim. One recent 2015 Stanford study, for example, by Rebecca Diamond and Timothy James McQuade, examined the effects of a neighboring spillover of property developments financed by the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC). Results showed that the surrounding property values had increased by 6.5% inviting more economically diverse and cosmopolitan homeowners while seeing the local crime rates decrease (https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/faculty-research/working-papers/who-wants-affordable-housing-their-backyard-equilibrium-analysis-low) . Another study in 2014 conducted by the privately owned Maxfield Research Company and commissioned by the non-profit, Family Housing Fund, looked at the property values and sales in the Twin Cities in Minnesota and their impact by the development of affordable housing. Data also showed no negative effects on them. Instead, “home sales displayed similar or stronger performance in the period after affordable rental housing was built compared to a control group (Family Housing Fund Public Education Initiative May 2014).”

Despite the prevailing evidence, the tumultuous housing crisis plaguing both Los Angeles and the country as a whole does see communities struggling to keep their homes as the cost of living continues to increase, and gentrification seeps into cities pushing local residents out of their homes. In a recent article by the Los Angeles Times, a record number of 1,000 Section 8 vouchers have been on a waiting list for a little over a decade due to the homeless situation in Los Angeles (http://laist.com/2017/04/04/section_8_waiting_list.php) . In a 2016 UCLA study on development around transit areas and gentrification, data suggested that much of the gentrification has currently centered on or near areas where subway and light-rail transit stops are located pushing residents further away as a new, younger demographic took occupancy attracting new investors and private developers (http://la.curbed.com/2016/8/30/12712942/gentrification-map-los-angeles-county) . As a result, affected residents worry about their futures and whether they’ll still have a home the next day. In light of this eventuality, communities had banded together forming neighborhood councils to add another, personal voice to the current discussion on the homelessness issue affecting Los Angeles. As such, members from some of those neighborhood councils accepted the mayor’s invitation and attended 28th St Apartments as he toured the facility. They took this opportunity to voice their concerns to Clifford Beers staff asking questions concerning the allocation of affordable housing funds and what other options are available to improve the housing situation near them.

Staff carefully explained to them the process and the challenges that developers generally encounter, especially non-profit organizations, like Clifford Beers Housing. While on the tour, visitors kept drilling the staff on what options were examined before making the final decisions on 28th St Apartments resulting in a surprising discussion on some basic development issues. For example, visitors learned that the parking issue is one of the biggest challenges to overcome especially in DTLA where a single parking stall can cost at least $50,000 per tenant prompting staff to figure out a viable solution. When asked how gentrification has impacted Los Angeles, Mrs. Okeke replied,

“Gentrification is happening. What we would want to be the goal would be sustainable development that really lifts all people. Housing is getting more expensive. What we would ideally want is that the number of jobs and the pay scale per working people also increase with the housing costs so that people could continue to afford the housing. We don’t want the gap between the wealthy and the poor to continue to expand because then you’re getting like the Bay area. You have million dollar homes, million dollar incomes of just 5 or 1% of people. Then you have the people working at the gas stations in San Francisco who have to live 2 blocks away or have to live with their cousin because there is absolutely no possible way to afford to live in the area where you work.”

Affordable housing is plagued by bureaucracy, red tape, and funding at all levels of government. Funding for development alone is a labyrinth prompting developers to jump through various hoops just to gather enough capital to get the proverbial ball rolling. Much of the funding is done through tax credits which are prone to investment fluctuations. Money may be available one year but then unavailable the next. Non-profits, as a result, have to advocate and innovate ways of gathering the necessary funds to maintain certain projects which entails an interesting cat and mouse game of lobbying.

“We’re always advocating for more attention to be paid to funding at the state level. Last year, our staff and a lot of our residents went to Sacramento to talk to CA senators to ask for more money for affordable housing. That resulted in the state passing a bill called No Place Like Home, which is several billion dollars for affordable housing. So, that was good. We’re always trying to advocate for more money and attention for affordable housing on all levels from the federal to state to county to city levels…We really try to be as innovative as possible in the way we come up with new ways to fund housing. So, we don’t and we can’t only rely on tax credits because they’re so inconsistent, and you can’t always expect that money to be available. We have to make sure that we can sustain and continue to build more affordable housing even if that money isn’t available (Claire Okeke, Director of Marketing Public Relations, and Grants).”

With the recent votes approving Measures H and HHH, organizations like Clifford Beers Housing hope to increase more opportunities to better secure funds for continued projects on affordable housing and solicit additional government assistance to green light new projects. The key however is to keep the neighboring communities engaged and to not only empower them to help such projects succeed, but to also support new endeavors to cover the greater Los Angeles area.

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According to Cristian Ahumada, Clifford Beers Housing Executive Director, who spoke to visitors during Mayor Garcetti’s visit,

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“We’re seeking to improve the city and have that level of engagement [from the neighborhood councils] and have the discussion [on the topic of homelessness] as the mayor had discussed today. What we’re seeking is the creation of a model that is a successful model. So, when you look at the 28th St Apartments, you’re outside and you can see that it’s this beautiful building that has been restored and has provided homage to a wonderful African-American architect. And what is the greatest respect that we can provide to that individual than to have preserved those common spaces as housing spaces and housing for the most vulnerable in the community. And in so doing that, we have a beautiful building that has been well-maintained and serve as a model wherein the very near future, when we access HHH and replicate these [projects] again and again throughout the city in various models.“

The issue of homelessness in the US is a very complicated topic intertwined in a web of political chess and wrangling in order to educate key stakeholders and advocate for the truly vulnerable populations of this nation. Los Angeles in particular has a very potent dilemma as space is severely limited and existing structures that could provide potential locales to house the city’s most impoverished are stymied by zoning, building codifications, bureaucratic red tape, prevailing societal misconceptions, and political, legal hurdles. Organizations like Clifford Beers Housing strive to overcome such challenges in order to meet its goal of providing permanent housing coupled with the provision of quality social services to the county’s chronically homeless and families who run the risk of ending up on the street. Mayor Eric Garcetti is a key partner for such non-profit organizations whose political capital and clout can help tip the balance in favor of the city’s disenfranchised. As more families are affected by the current housing situation in California and, subsequently, the rest of the nation, continued outreach and advocacy are encouraged to better gain additional support from other key stakeholders who too can help tip the scales to help affected communities. For more information on Clifford Beers Housing, readers can visit http://cbhousing.org. Both the Mayor’s Office and the LA Housing Authority can be reached at https://www.lamayor.org and http://www.hacola.org .

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