In addressing Los Angeles’ housing needs, Westchester can be a leader

By Tara Barauskas

Community Corporation of Santa Monica Executive Director Tara Barauskas

Tara Barauskas serves as Executive Director at Community Corporation of Santa Monica, a nonprofit organization that builds, restores and manages affordable housing for people of modest means.

As the COVID-19 pandemic enters its sixth month, it has become clear to millions of Angelenos that the virus and its associated political, economic and social effects are here to stay. With autumn on the horizon, many in our community are still out of work or facing indefinite furlough. Students from our LAUSD and private schools, and even LMU, are beginning the fall semester online. Local businesses are unable to open in full, and many remain closed altogether.

The pandemic, though, has revealed something even deeper about Los Angeles, something etched into our city’s founding, growth and accession to global prominence — housing inequity. With countless individuals in our community facing impending eviction, and many more living on the streets in record numbers, Los Angeles needs to rethink housing. While it’s vital we respect the character of our long-established neighborhoods, we must begin to integrate new models into our communities if we wish to address a decades-long affordability crisis that is not only creating pain for people, but also many associated problems for our communities.

The post-COVID future of Los Angeles must be one that uses affordable housing to prioritize diversity, inclusiveness and sustainability — for all. Westchester — long one of LA’s most innovative neighborhoods — can be the model to help get us there.

For more than 80 years, progressive housing policy has been at the forefront of the Westchester ethos. When air travel grew precipitously in the 1930s and 40s, and our very own Los Angeles International Airport quickly became a global center for air travel, Westchester rose to meet the challenge. In just the span of a few years, this sleepy Westside community was transformed into a busy hub deeply integrated into the global economy. Westchester homes were purchased by engineers innovating to create new airplanes and military equipment.

With inventive housing policy, we developed solutions. Westchester transformed its chaparral plains into single-family homes. We zoned new neighborhoods where generations of Angelenos and their children grew up and started families. We housed the pilots, aerospace engineers, defense contractors and corporate managers who helped transform LAX into a portal to the world. Our population expanded, though — due to historically discriminatory practices — Westchester residents were primarily not people of color. Restrictive housing covenants were placed throughout Westchester, limiting minority communities’ access to housing and continuing to drive inequality to this day.

These are not the neighborhood values we should be espousing if we want to eradicate homelessness and be a welcoming place for all. It is time to rethink how we house Westchester’s residents – that the single-family home is not the only ideal that can be beautiful and high quality. While 70 years ago, we turned to single-family zoning to satisfy Westchester’s nascent community’s needs, we now must also allow for affordable, multi-family housing.

Affordable housing keeps our communities diverse, inclusive, and sustainable. It caps rents at 30% of a given tenant’s income, offering working families who have jobs in our neighborhoods newfound levels of financial stability. It allows people to live near their work or schools, taking cars off the road, reducing traffic and limiting carbon emissions. More importantly, though, affordable housing helps build more holistically inclusive and dynamic communities. Affordable properties allow people like teachers at schools, grocery store workers, and entrepreneurs at our small businesses — vital pillars of our community traditionally priced out of Westside neighborhoods — to live right here in Westchester. Multi-family housing offers community-building opportunities – sharing amenities, knowing your neighbors, creating safe environments for kids to play. I personally live in multi-family housing and absolutely love the quality of life it brings for my family. Our neighbors look out for one another, we share recipes and borrow cups of sugar when we need it – instead of ‘me,’ multi-family housing creates real opportunities for ‘we.’

Work is already being done to ensure the post-COVID era is one of housing equity and sustainability. Community
Corporation of Santa Monica — a nonprofit that restores, builds and manages affordable housing for people of modest means — has submitted a proposal to construct a nearly 100-unit, affordable property on a vacant lot off Airport Boulevard. After more than 40 years of operation in Santa Monica, Community Corp. has begun to expand its mission to other Westside communities like Culver City and Mar Vista. Embracing such new developments are key first steps for Westchester to show that it is ready to be inclusive and innovative in applying a modern housing model — which integrates single and multi-family dwellings — to our Westside communities and ensuring that our local housing institutions can withstand future economic crises.

Westchester has always been a shining example of Los Angeles’ innovative and entrepreneurial spirit. At this critical juncture in our nation’s history, at which we must consider the character we wish the post-COVID version of our city to embody, our community has an obligation to lead the way. Westchester helped Los Angeles blossom into a global city. Through affordable housing, let’s transform it into an inclusive one.