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With No Easy Solutions To Get More Family-Sized Housing Built In LA, Is Public Housing An Option?
Everyone agrees the shortage is real and damaging. Potential solutions: Incentives, requirements, even a return to government-owned housing.
A long view of L.A. has apartments in the foreground with the downtown skyline beyond during the daytime.
Los Angeles policymakers differ on how to get more family-sized affordable apartments built, but agree on the significant need.
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AleMoraes244/Getty Images
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With young families increasingly shut out of buying houses in Los Angeles, local lawmakers are now debating ways to spur the creation of more family-sized apartments. Without those units, they see L.A.’s overcrowded housing getting worse and more families leaving the state.

But affordable housing developers in L.A. are largely focused on creating smaller rental units — understandable given the state’s shrinking average household size and the push to get more unhoused Angelenos into permanent homes.

That has left little consensus on how to get larger units built. In the meantime, some millennial parents are coming up with their own creative solutions.

“It's sort of a ridiculous situation that we've put young couples into where we say, if you want to have enough room to actually have kids, you have to leave,” said Nolan Gray, a UCLA urban planning doctoral student and research director of California YIMBY.

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Gray not only studies the housing crisis — he and his partner are living it, he said. They’ve considered moving to her hometown, Guatemala City, before having kids. An affordable condo or townhome would probably keep them in L.A., he said. But 78% of residential land in the greater L.A. area is zoned to disallow these dense forms of housing.

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“You're not getting the supply of starter homes that can accommodate new and young families,” Gray said. “So folks have to leave.”

Few L.A. apartments have enough space for kids

Millennial parents who find renting is their only option are left with few kid-friendly choices. L.A.’s most recent housing planning document estimates that just 14% of the city’s rental homes have three bedrooms or more, compared with 70% of owner-occupied homes.

A chart showing the share of housing stock in the city of L.A. by unit size, broken down by owner-occupied and renter-occupied housing.

New affordable housing developments in L.A. are even less likely to contain family-sized units.

L.A. Mayor Karen Bass has succeeded at getting developers to propose thousands of new income-restricted apartments through her signature housing streamlining program, known as ED1. But few of those apartments will be large enough to accommodate kids.

A new analysis by real estate data firm ATC Research finds that about 92% of apartments in the ED1 pipeline are studios or one-bedrooms. Two-bedrooms make up about 6.6% and three-bedrooms are less than 2%.

A chart showing proposed ED1 apartments broken down by unit size.

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Can L.A. lure developers into building larger apartments?

Some elected officials say L.A. needs to correct this imbalance by offering incentives to developers who include more three-bedroom apartments in their projects.

Paul Krekorian, the current L.A. city council president, recently put forward a motion proposing a plan to let developers exempt third bedrooms from square footage calculations and add an extra story to their buildings — as long as they agree to keep large apartments affordable to moderate-income families for 99 years.

“I think that that will help move the needle in changing the market incentives more towards family housing,” Krekorian told LAist. “It's becoming increasingly difficult for people to enter the housing market to purchase. Which means they're going to be renters for a longer period of time. Which means we have to figure out how to fix this.”

A third of L.A. households are made up of four people or more. And the vast majority of the city’s households are renters. Without enough family-sized apartments for all of them, Los Angeles suffers from overcrowding at higher rates than any other major city.

According to U.S. Census figures, 17% of the city’s renter households are overcrowded, meaning they have more people than rooms. Families squeezing into small apartments were unable to isolate from one another, worsening the spread of COVID-19 early in the pandemic.

Krekorian’s motion has not yet been scheduled for a vote.

Or should the city mandate larger units?

Some community advocates look at L.A.’s overcrowding and conclude that city officials shouldn’t give developers perks to build larger apartments — they should require it.

“If a new development does not meet the needs of Boyle Heights, then it is not welcomed in Boyle Heights,” said Pamela Agustin-Anguiano, director of the nonprofit Eastside LEADS.

City planners are currently crafting an update to the Boyle Heights Community Plan, a document that will guide future development in the largely Latino, working-class neighborhood. A recent analysis found that 30% of Boyle Heights homes are overcrowded.

A side of a building has paintings of homes on a wall beyond a wrought iron railing. A person is walking along the landing.
A woman walks in front of a tiled mural depicting rows of homes in Boyle Heights.
Chava Sanchez

Eastside LEADS supports increasing the Community Plan’s existing requirement for affordable housing projects to include at least two bedrooms in 30% of their units. Councilmember Kevin de León — the area’s representative who is in a November runoff to retain his seat — has pushed to raise the recommended threshold to 60%.

But Agustin-Anguiano said building larger apartments isn’t enough. She said they must also be affordable to families earning 15% of the area’s median income, or $14,750 per year. Previous income cutoffs for affordable housing went no lower than 30% of the area’s median income.

“That is not the income of Boyle Heights,” Agustin-Anguiano said. “A majority of the residents that we organize with earn less than $20,000 a year.”

Why experts say mandates could backfire

Some housing researchers worry that mandates can scare away developers focused on low-income housing.

“Having that as a mandate may result in no affordable housing being built,” said Muhammad Alameldin, a policy associate with UC Berkeley's Terner Center for Housing Innovation.

Developers in California already struggle to finance affordable housing projects that maximize the number of rentable units by focusing on studios and one-bedrooms, Alameldin said.

“The cost to build that extra bedroom per square foot might make it so that the rents being returned are not enough,” Alameldin said. “Two-bedrooms and three-bedrooms are in this category where the current system — financially, policy wise — doesn’t incentivize this practice.”

An analysis performed for the city by consulting firm AECOM concluded that increasing the two-bedroom Boyle Heights mandate from 30% to 40% would “further limit project feasibility and decrease the overall potential number of housing units … undermining citywide housing goals.”

Alameldin said lawmakers could instead explore other reforms to boost family-sized apartments. For example, he said, fire safety codes that currently require most apartment buildings to include two staircases could instead require one, the standard in many places outside the U.S. The layouts needed to fit two staircases typically take space away from additional bedrooms.

“By having one single staircase, typically in the middle,” Alameldin said, “you could have a whole floor be a unit. Or half a floor be a unit. And it fits within those smaller spaces, so you can build more two- and three-bedroom units in urban areas.”

Families find their own creative solutions

While lawmakers and policy experts debate the finer points of how to build more family-sized housing, some L.A. families are creating their own solutions.

Thomas Irwin and his wife, both 31, were renting a backyard accessory dwelling unit in East L.A. when they had their now 4-year-old son. Buying a home was way out of their budget. But staying in their 600-square-foot rental couldn’t accommodate their growing family.

“We knew it wouldn't be long-term,” Irwin said. “We were planning to have a second kid. And we just weren't going to have the square footage in the house to be able to have a whole family.”

That’s when Irwin started thinking about a different path to homeownership: splitting the cost of a duplex. He and his wife had a friend of nearly 10 years who was willing to team up. In 2022, shortly before their second child was born, Irwin and his wife co-purchased a duplex in City Terrace with that friend for about $800,000.

A man with light-tone skin and a beard and mustache stands outside a duplex with a red door. His jacket reads: Coach Thomas and has a Lincoln High emblem.
Thomas Irwin stands outside the City Terrace duplex he co-owns with a friend who lives upstairs, while Irwin and his family reside on the ground floor.
David Wagner

Irwin said in order to stay in L.A., more young parents are going to have to think outside the box and sacrifice on their ideal family home.

“People who bought 20 or 30 years ago, they are doing OK — their homes have appreciated a lot in price,” Irwin said. “For us who are younger, under the age of 40, who didn't have that opportunity, there's just no way those types of homes are going to go down in price to a degree that they're going to be affordable.”

At about $2,300 per month, the monthly payment on their two-bedroom downstairs unit is pretty similar to what they would be paying to rent a similarly sized apartment, Irwin said. But they get the benefits of homeownership, including a backyard with views of the downtown L.A. skyline — and the chance to build equity over time.

With their son and daughter sharing a bedroom, “There are days where it feels tight,” Irwin said. “On the other hand, when we think about the alternatives, it's probably a lot better than most.”

Why some say bring back public housing

For other families, the complexities involved in co-buying a property may sound less appealing than simply leaving California for cheaper housing elsewhere. Some policymakers hope to convince them to stay through assistance with buying a house all their own.

The California Dream For All program offers down payment assistance to first-time home buyers in exchange for a cut of the home’s appreciating value after owners sell later on. That said, this program’s funding disproportionately bypassed prospective buyers in L.A. when it was rolled out last year.

Despite efforts to give first-time buyers a leg up, USC urban planning professor Dowell Myers said the current outlook is so bleak for young families that L.A. lawmakers should consider reviving a familiar but neglected policy — building more public housing.

“I'm not a promoter of public housing,” Myers said. “But I gotta tell you, the current crisis is so bad and we need action so quickly that it would not be out of the question.”

L.A. stopped building public housing in the 1950s, but some state and local lawmakers are now pushing for more direct government involvement in housing production.

Alex Lee, who represents parts of the San Francisco Bay Area in the California Assembly, has introduced a bill that would create a government-run social housing authority to build and lease homes to families who would pay no more than 30% of their income on housing. Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a similar bill spearheaded by Lee last year.

Locally, L.A. city council members Eunisses Hernandez, Nithya Raman and Hugo Soto-Martinez have expressed support for social housing models similar to those in cities like Vienna, Austria, where more than half of residents live in housing owned or subsidized by the government.

Whatever solution lawmakers pursue, Myers said, older homeowners in L.A. should feel more responsibility for supporting new home building in their neighborhoods for today’s young families.

“Stay in your house,” Myers said. “But please vote for more housing.”


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