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L.A.'s Small Lot Homes: Destroying Low-Rent Housing, Restoring the American Dream, or Both?

Raquel Arias and her son, James, at their Silver Lake bungalow, which a developer wants to replace with small lot homes.
Raquel Arias and her son, James, at their Silver Lake bungalow, which a developer wants to replace with small lot homes. | Photo: Chase Scheinbaum
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This story has been published in tandem with a segment for KCET's award-winning TV show "SoCal Connected." Watch it here now.

When Raquel Arias' Silver Lake bungalow is demolished, the last remnants of her disappearing neighborhood will be gone.The 35-year-old has lived in a rent-controlled house on the corner of North Coronado and Marathon streets her entire life. Her parents, whom she lives with along with her 4-year-old son, have lived on the same lot even longer.

Over the years, she has watched her immediate neighborhood make a familiar transformation. The low-income Hispanic neighbors have moved out in search of lower rent, and the immediate area has become younger, whiter, more Asian, and more affluent. If it weren't for rent control, she, a laid-off school district employee, and her parents, a housecleaner and valet, wouldn't be able to afford their two-bedroom home.

"I'm one of the few people that's still around since I grew up," said the soft-spoken woman with deep brown eyes and straight brown hair. "Everything around here is like triple the amount of rent that we pay."

Come August, the family will move aside for a controversial new housing type that has been available in L.A. just ten years: a small lot subdivision. Many small lot homes are sleek and boxy, clearly of a different lineage than surrounding bungalows, apartments, or condos, and frequently fetch upwards of three-quarters of a million dollars. On Coronado Street, the property owner wants to level a duplex and a fourplex to build 10 independent homes, a project approved by the city last fall.

Three other families living on the property have already left. "They weren't happy at all," Arias said. Initially, they resolved to fight the development but eventually settled for relocation fees. "They were intimidated, I guess, so they decided to sign." Now Arias and her family are the sole tenants.

They have been permitted to live on the property for one additional year because her parents are senior citizens and her four-year-old son, James, is mentally disabled. His condition requires round-the-clock care. Beyond the inconvenience and sadness of leaving her neighborhood, he is reason enough to want to stay. His neurologist is just two miles down the road and another therapist he sometimes sees is also nearby. Moving will likely require Arias to find new doctors for the boy, a disruption she would rather forego. She has applied for low-income housing, but it could take until mid-November to get a final response, which would be more than two months past the eviction date.

A small lot subdivision in Los Angeles. City planners say developments like these could make homeownership a reality for more Angelenos. But some residents say the homes are ruining the character of neighborhoods.
A small lot subdivision in Los Angeles. City planners say developments like these could make homeownership a reality for more Angelenos. But some residents say the homes are ruining the character of neighborhoods. | Photo: Lata Pandya

Arias felt helpless when she first learned she might have to leave. "I didn't know what was going to happen or who to turn to," she said. But word of her predicament spread to neighbors who have rallied to help. More than 170 of them signed a petition against the development, and they've gone as far as measuring the grade and width of streets to disprove facts used in the project's approval. They don't want to see her leave. And in a larger sense, the proposed development has touched a nerve. They -- like numerous residents across L.A. -- have grown frustrated with the boxy homes they say are a new form of mansionization ruining the neighborhood's character.

And the homes are multiplying. Last year through November, the latest data available, 37 small lot developments were approved -- the most of any year yet. Silver Lake has its share of small lots and residents say developers are coming to them with ever more cash offers. "A lot of affordable housing being destroyed," said Anne Hars, a neighbor who has helped lead the Coronado Street fight. "A lot of people really hate this architecture that's going up," she said. "They just loom over everything."

Some academics say the ordinance could help lower L.A.'s exorbitant home prices and help accommodate a growing population, a mandate issued by Mayor Eric Garcetti. But from Arias's vantage, it doesn't seem fair. "Everywhere you go, you see these big ugly apartments and they're super expensive," she said. "Where before there used to be nice little stores, now there are only luxury apartment complexes. It's losing its beauty."

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Arias surely isn't alone. Angelenos have made way for at least some of the more than 2,000 small homes that have gone up since they became legal in 2005. Though they are dispersed across the city, many developments have sprung up in increasingly pricey neighborhoods like Echo Park, Highland Park, Silver Lake, and Eagle Rock. To some, that seems odd, given the city's claim that small lots are "more affordable."

L.A. is among the priciest cities in the U.S. to buy real estate, and has one of the lowest rates of homeownership in the country. Which is exactly why city officials dreamed up small lot homes. The ordinance was intended to create more homes thereby driving down home prices and growing the city's housing stock. As an added benefit, the homes themselves were expected to be less expensive than comparably sized single-family residences (because they sit on smaller plots) or condos (because of monthly fees).

The more small lots we build, the more affordable home prices will become, said Richard K. Green, director of USC's Lusk School of Real Estate. "If this is done enough it could have a big upside," he said.

Green believes the ordinance is a sound way of growing a denser city. "We need to figure out how to shoehorn more houses into L.A." Though he would like to see more protective laws for people like Arias, he said the ordinance may be a necessary evil. "When we make policy changes, there are always winners and losers. Most things are win-lose, and if you have more winners than losers maybe that's okay."

Jake Wegmannn, an architecture professor who has studied L.A.'s zoning, agreed. "The trouble with these things is that we focus on the people who get displaced but it's harder to see the effects of people who don't get housing there," he said. "You're hearing about the costs of moving forward with the development, but consider the consequences of doing nothing."

As for affordability, it's relative: small lots generally cost between $500,000 and $850,000 for between 700 to 2,500 square feet. (The median single-family home price in the city of L.A. is $526,000, according to Zillow). Where Arias's rent-controlled bungalow stands today, a developer plans to build 10 three-bedroom homes that will be priced at up to three-quarters of a million dollars.

Still, thanks to the ordinance, Wegmann said, that price may not be as high as it sounds. "Its one of the few tools I can see that will result in family-friendly and middle income or upper middle income housing that is affordable to a couple making good salaries, rather than someone with a multi-million dollar inheritance."

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The Small Lot Subdivision Ordinance reduced minimum lot sizes from 5,000 to 600 square feet on land zoned for commercial uses, apartments, condominiums, duplexes, or bungalow courts, and reduced setbacks so homes could more closely abut neighbors and sidewalks. And in their short lives, the resulting homes have often been admired.

To cite some examples, the Architect's Newspaper fawned that they offer "a rare dose of optimism for the city's developers and architects," and noted that many "sport a decidedly modern aesthetic." Dwell and the L.A. Times have likewise gushed over them, and this article in Urban Land Magazine credits L.A.s innovative law with spurring the creation of homes that "appeal to a discerning market of 25- to 50-year-old urban professionals...who seek a more urbane lifestyle in a walkable neighborhood."

But it's clear that many Angelenos find them unattractive. An internal document shows that city officials report that the public often views small lots as oversized, out of place, and inconsistent with their surroundings.

Silver Lake's band of critics does not object to all of the diminutive homes. They do object to the homes' minimal setbacks, that developers are permitted to squeeze so many units together, that small lots are permitted adjacent to single-family houses, and that low-income residents can be displaced.

City Councilman Tom LaBonge is a critic himself. In 2013, he entered a motion to rewrite the ordinance, saying the homes have "disrupted the character of existing neighborhoods." It failed to pass.

 

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Joe Ryan Ferrell's Waverly Drive home in Silver Lake is ground zero for small lot development. At the moment, single-family homes line his street, but that could quickly change. A developer intends to build small lots immediately next door, and different developers have made cash offers on his house, the single-family home next door, and another property a few doors down, apparently all with the hopes of subdividing into small lots. A development called Buzz Court already stands around the corner, and near that one, another is under construction.

"My neighborhood is getting slammed with these. Almost everyone has a cash offer," said the lanky 29-year-old member of the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council. The small lot boom began on his street in 2009 with the construction of a development named Auburn 7. Like this flattering Dwell magazine article, Ferrell doesn't object to these seven small homes. To him, they're the "gold standard," partly because a hillside location makes them appear shorter than they are and he finds the design attractive.Additionally, a parcel of green space (owned by Los Angeles Department of Water and Power) sets them far back from his street. Ferrell points out, though, that the green space makes Auburn 7 an exception to the rule -- an average development will not luck into an adjacent, undeveloped green space.

Auburn 7 Small Lot Home Development in Silver Lake
The Auburn 7 small lot home development in Silver Lake. | Photo: Lata Pandya

Just down the road, though, on a commercial stretch of Glendale Boulevard, lies a development that shares none of the charms of Auburn 7, Ferrell believes. That's the site of SL70, a development of 70 small homes that he said are too dense. With so many units, the development dominates the area. "They look cheap," he said. "They're right on top of each other."

A few minutes away in Hollywood, at Fountain and Gower, another development is under construction that Ferrell believes is poorly designed. It is taller than surrounding single-family homes, and it seems a person standing on a balcony would be able to peer right into a neighbor's backyard or kitchen window.

"Whoever came up with this did not think about the consequences," Ferrell said. "Instead of McMansions, you're getting five houses on the same lot."

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An artist's rendering of the proposed Coronado Street development shows modern-looking townhouses with large windows. Neighbors see much more. To Hars, Arias' neighbor, the design is totally incompatible with the surroundings. "We didn't object to modern design, it's modern design on steroids that we objected to," she wrote in an appeal to the city, which was denied in January.

Neighbors have also voiced concern that the development would be taller than surrounding structures, cut off neighbors' view of the setting sun, Hollywood sign and Griffith Observatory, doesn't provide enough green space, and be out of keeping with the "architectural character" of Silver Lake.

Auburn 7 Small Lot Home Development in Silver Lake
An artist's rendering of the small lot home development slated to replace Raquel Arias' home in Silver Lake. | Photo: Chase Scheinbaum

"In a funny way, it exemplifies what is so awful about this ordinance," said Heather Carson, a member of the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council. Carson and others stress that they are not against small lots per se, but that they see many similarly undesirable proposals. "I've seen projects from over 30 developers and they all look the same," she said. There are other frustrating resemblances: Developers want to use minimum setbacks and maximum dimensions of width and height. That approach might work in one neighborhood, but not another, she said, but the ordinance doesn't see it that way. "What Silver Lake needs is not what West Los Angeles needs. Everybody's affected differently."

Raffi Shiranian, who is behind the development at North Coronado and Marathon streets, takes another view of the project. "This piece of property was a dumping ground. There was a homeless person living there," he said. Shiranian points out that zoning allows for 18 units but he has opted to erect just 10. Designing a development in closer keeping with the neighborhood is "impossible," he said, when the surrounding buildings, many built early last century, are so different. "We believe we are doing a project that enhances the community and be as sensitive as we can to maintaining the character of an old neighborhood and do a responsible development."

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The ordinance has its roots in a study done in the late '90s, when Los Angeles was deep in a housing crisis it has yet to emerge from. City leaders dispatched a task force of more than 100 academics, advocates, and government representatives to determine the scope of L.A.'s problems and recommend solutions. In 2000, they produced a report noting that L.A. had one of the lowest homeownership rates in the country and that, despite a growing population and increasingly unaffordable homes, housing production was at a "standstill."

The task force concluded the city could alleviate this problem by allowing more small "beach-style lots" like those in Santa Monica and Venice. Doing so, they wrote, "would allow more families to achieve the American dream of homeownership."

Thus was born the idea, said the ordinance's author, Jane Blumenfeld, who retired as acting deputy director of the planning department in 2010. "It gave people an opportunity to own fee simple single-family homes in a neighborhood they wouldn't otherwise be able to afford," she said. "Compared to surrounding single-family homes, these were more affordable."

(It's a common misconception that the ordinance was intended to increase density; small lot developments may increase or decrease density compared to what stood before. Following the study, city planners devised measures for numerous things, including affordability and density, Blumenfeld said, but the small lot ordinance was not one of them. "In L.A., the housing situation is so complex there is never going to be one magic bullet to fix it all," she said.)

In practice, the result has been just what planners imagined back then, said Simon Pastucha, a senior L.A. city planner. "The goal was creating something you can step into out of the rental market and go into homeownership. In some cases, it has generated that kind of opportunity."

Lisa Webber, a department spokesperson, said the ordinance is not a part of re:code L.A., a huge effort to overhaul city zoning currently underway. And while the city has no plan to revise the ordinance, "We're open to modifying it now that we've had some time to see how it's working out."

To Ferrell and others who do not like that small lots can be plunked in residential areas, Pastucha would point out that local zoning allows for apartments and condominiums. "It's an area that's long been planned to be denser, but nobody's used to it." When city planners determine zoning, they plan for what the city might want or need in 25 years. "Now we're getting to a point where the population and economics are there," Pastucha said.

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Arias and her neighbors are not finished. They plan to fight their lost appeal in City Hall and, if necessary, superior court. But, barring action by city leaders or a judge, Arias and her family will have to pick up and leave by August 20.

She has watched her neighbors move to Lancaster and Palmdale, where rents are lower. But the family is considering moving to South L.A., where they have relatives, or relocating to Nevada. Should they choose to stick around their hometown, they will be entering the worst rental market in the U.S., where renters spend far more than the commonly recommended 30 percent of income.

Strangely, if academics and city planners are right, demolishing her house -- and many others like it -- will someday lead to more affordable housing. It isn't clear when that day will come, though, and it probably won't be soon enough for Arias.

"I think it's time to leave L.A.," she said.

Raquel Arias and James outside their rented Silver Lake bungalow. Unless she and her neighbors can defeat a proposed development, Arias will have to find a new place to live by August 20.
Raquel Arias and James outside their rented Silver Lake bungalow. Unless she and her neighbors can defeat a proposed development, Arias will have to find a new place to live by August 20. | Photo: Chase Scheinbaum