Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

March 17, 2016


Matthew Messner and Mimi Zeiger reflect on affordability and density in their respective cities.


Architecture, Articles, Urbanism

Shelter. Let’s start there. It’s a basic need. The root of architecture— Marc-Antoine Laugier’s enlightenment frontispiece offers up the primitive hut as reason over nature. A right, right? We’d like to think so. But globally and nationally, the simplest of human acts of shelter are elusive, politicized, and pushed to extremes. In architecture building types conventions split along economic lines: house versus housing. The former is a client-driven expression of taste, while the latter requires a systematic juggling of multiple units and services.

In looking for a theme to bring together Midwest and West for this issue, we found that the changing states of housing could not be ignored. Both regions share a long legacy of progressive residential design. Indeed, Frank Lloyd Wright’s office birthed the careers of Los Angeles experimenters R.M. Schindler and John Lautner, whose first gig in L.A. was for Wright, project managing a Usonian-style perched in the hills. Today the West Coast is facing a critical housing shortage and rising rents mean that shelter is increasingly precarious for residents in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. Chicago, on the other hand, is dealing with a shrinking population, particularly in its low-income neighborhoods, as unemployment, crime, and foreclosure challenge community resilience.

With a loss of over 200,000 residents in the first ten years of the century, mostly from economically depressed neighborhoods, Chicago is now hoping to stop the flight from the city with an ambitious five-year “Bouncing Back” plan. Mixed-income and affordable housing are at the heart of the plan, which the city hopes will leverage some of Chicago’s existing assets. With a shrinking population, finding housing stock is rarely the issue. As such, the city is focusing a great deal of its planning and money on helping existing and potential property owners in an effort to stem the neglect and foreclosure of existing single and multi-family homes. Support for these units comes from a handful of programs, including state and federal tax credits and Tax Increment Financing (TIF) incentives. This plays well with Chicago’s aversion to dense affordable housing, as the city is only building limited large affordable developments.

Meanwhile, the fight between house and housing is heating up in Los Angeles. The proposed Neighborhood Integrity Initiative ballot measure drafted by the anti-development Coalition to Preserve LA pits homeowners against high-density projects. The CPLA’s sights are set on the luxury apartment towers planned for Hollywood. The group decries the “Manhattanization of Hollywood”, but the proposed two-year moratorium on projects that include General Plan amendments (often granted by city officials for greater FAR, more height, or reduced parking would also impact small and mid-size development, including much-needed affordable housing. The preservation mentioned that the organization’s name speaks not to the conservation of the city’s history, but instead maintains an Arcadian myth of a low-density urban fabric.

In early February, L.A. city and county officials approved a $100 million plus plan to address the current homelessness state of emergency—the county has the largest chronic homeless population in the country. In the near term, the plan will tackle services, but for architects it is the long-term agenda that is critical, with close to $2 billion allocated for housing over the next decade. This puts affordable housing as a design problem front and center.

In short, the West Coast doesn’t have enough housing (affordable and market rate), Chicago doesn’t have enough that is livable. The home truth is that while urbanism and infrastructure have long dominated discussions about the future of cities, it now seems that the domestic sphere will shape our understanding for the next couple decades. For designers, this inversion where private impacts public is clearly a challenge given politics, policy, and code, but it is also an important opportunity to express architectural agency.