Part of the proposed site for the District NoHo development. (Image: Liam Fitzpatrick | Knock LA)
In a joint project between Los Angeles Metro and two private development companies, the North Hollywood station’s park-and-ride lot is proposed to be replaced with a $1 billion mixed-use complex called District NoHo. Only 20% of its units will be dedicated to affordable housing, and those units will be segregated from the rest of the development.
Metro entered into an exclusive negotiating agreement (ENA) with developers Trammell Crow Company and High Street Residential in the summer of 2016. The current project is planned to be built on 16 acres of public land.
However, only 311 units out of 1,527 will be dedicated to affordable housing. There are at least 63,706 individuals experiencing homelessness in LA County, with only 27% being sheltered, according to the 2020 homelessness count by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA).
Metro is calling District NoHo their largest development to date. The 2.2-million-square-foot development project is to be built in several stages over the course of 10 years. The development’s set location would replace what is now the North Hollywood station’s park-and-ride lot, which has a total of 1,085 spaces for Metro customers. The lot is also used by commuters as a drop-off and pick-up point. But if District NoHo’s current plan is approved, Metro customers will be left with only 750 parking spaces.
This project also includes the renovations of the transit center and electrification that will serve the current rail line along with three new rail lines. These improvements for the Metro station will also be fully funded by private developers Trammell Crow Company and High Street Residential.
While these renovations will only take up some portion of the budget for District NoHo, this is one of the reasons the development will not include more affordable housing. At least, this is what Metro and Trammell Crow told Reimagine District NoHo, a group of advocacy campaigners from the NoHo Home Alliance.
Truman Capps, who’s been volunteering with Reimagine District NoHo for over eight months, explained that during a meeting between the coalition, Metro, and Trammell Crow, the $80 million price tag for renovations and electrification was used as an excuse by the companies to avoid building more affordable housing.
“They basically said, ‘We would love to add more affordable housing but, you know, we’ve got to have enough income to cover this $80 million of repairs or renovations we’re doing on the transit hub.’ I don’t know when millions of dollars are being thrown around in terms of housing investments, $80 million seems like a relatively solvable amount of money,” said Capps.
Reimagine District NoHo’s main goal is to advocate for more affordable integrated housing that reflects the needs of communities facing housing insecurity. According to the LAHSA 2020 homelessness count, 615 individuals faced homelessness in North Hollywood, which had increased 36% from 2018.
LAHSA 2020 Homeless Count for North Hollywood. (Image: LAHSA 2020 Homeless Count)
As of February, the NoHo station serves an estimated 175,000 riders weekly through the Red Line subway. In fall 2019, Metro created an onboard customer survey that concluded, “75% of Metro customers are Latino and African American, with almost 70% of customers having an annual household income less than $35,000 (81% with income less than $40,000). Furthermore, 51% of Metro customers live below the federal poverty level, with a median household income of $19,325 systemwide and only $17,975 for bus riders.”
While the development claims to serve Metro customers, 80% of District NoHo housing will be market-rate units. The average rent for a 789-square-foot apartment in North Hollywood is $2,117 a month, and that price can rise substantially in the Arts District (where District NoHo will be built).
Before the pandemic, Noemi Romo, a longtime resident of Panorama City, explained the Red Line was vital for her, as she used it six days a week to commute to school at Cal State LA, work, and other necessary activities. Like most people living off minimum wage in Los Angeles, Romo found it difficult to find any affordable housing.
“It’s really disheartening when your budget is $800 and your main option is sharing a room with three other people. Anything less than $1,500, you’re looking at a pretty cramped space and compromising your ability to cook at home,” said Romo. “It’s a Catch-22 because you can either pay a lot in rent so that you have a kitchen and some space, or you can pay a little bit in rent, but then you’re mostly dependent on fast food and like pre-made meals. That’s how I ended up having to go all the way to the San Gabriel Valley to find affordable housing.”
Mixed-income or mixed-use housing brings their own difficulties when it comes to the conversation of equity. Affordable housing units and market-rate housing units are rarely equally distributed in the same complex.
Mixed-income housing projects for the most part are done through inclusionary zoning. In LA, if developers include some percentage of low- and lower-income housing, they are eligible to receive a density bonus. So if a developer includes 15% affordable housing, they will receive a 20% density bonus, allowing them to build more units than they would be able to normally.
Inclusionary zoning should, in theory, reduce gentrification and protect a city’s most vulnerable population. But market-rate housing takes up most units built in mixed-income projects, which doesn’t solve the affordable housing crisis.
Rendering of the layout of District NoHo structures with the locations marked for affordable housing. (Image: LA Metro)
District NoHo intends to segregate its affordable housing units to two separate buildings, while four other structures will hold the market-rate units along with retail space. One building will be at the corner of Tujunga Avenue and North Chandler Boulevard. The other building will be located at the corner of Fair Avenue and District Way. Metro states this is because once the project is officially approved, the affordable housing will be built first.
“We are planning standalone affordable housing because that is the most efficient way to access the subsidy the way that the funding sources work. They really emphasized standalone affordable housing, because it allows us to help the most people with the money,” said Marie Sullivan, the transportation planning manager at LA Metro, during a recent presentation to the San Fernando Valley Service Council. Sullivan did not respond to a request for comment on this article.
Affordable housing segregation, often called “poor door,” makes it difficult for residents from both housing rates to interact. This type of segregation also keeps affordable housing residents from accessing amenities and common areas as easily as their counterparts.
AB 491 became law in January, which prohibits developers from isolating affordable housing to a specific floor or area in mixed-income developments, as well as providing equal access to all amenities and common areas. But AB 491 doesn’t do much for District NoHo, as the segregated structures will have their own amenities and common areas.
“Trying to get allies on this project, I reached out to several affordable housing developers and trade organizations,” said Elaine Loring, a volunteer from Reimagine District NoHo. “One of them came back to me and basically said …’You need to fight for our equal amenities in those buildings and the others.’ This just struck all of us like, here we are [with] separate but equal in housing in 2022. As someone coming fresh to this issue, it’s just horrifying.”
During a San Fernando Valley Service Council meeting in February, none of the councilmembers addressed the low proportion of affordable housing or the housing segregation at District NoHo. One council member asked for confirmation that affordable units were “self-contained.” Another council member questioned the area median income (AMI) for affordable housing and whether it would include very low and low income residents.
Karen Shorr, the senior vice president of Trammell Crow, stated that the affordable units would be for residents with an income below 60% AMI. This means that individuals making more than $49,680 (LAHUD’s established 60% AMI) would not qualify for affordable housing in District NoHo, even though individuals making up to $66,250 are still considered low-income, according to the LAHUD 2021 Home Income Limits.
LA County income limits and rent levels for low income households. (Image: LA County Development Authority)
In summer 2021 Metro updated their Joint Development Policy, stating that they will prioritize 100% income-restricted housing on unused Metro-owned land with a goal to “deliver housing and amenities for everyone, focusing benefits for historically disadvantaged communities.” Income-restricted housing refers to apartments that have income limits, which means you have to have an income under a certain amount to be eligible for this type of housing. However, this new policy does not apply to District NoHo since the ENA was signed in 2016.
District NoHo is also dodging a motion adopted in December 2019 by the LA City Council, CF 19-1362, which “limits projects on public land to 100% affordable housing, unless it is determined by Council that an increased number of affordable units can be achieved through a different business model,” according to the Los Angeles Housing Department website.
This motion passed unanimously, including the vote of CD 2 Councilmember Paul Krekorian, who represents North Hollywood. Council member Krekorian did not respond to a request for comment on the development.
Developers and Metro claim District NoHo is a place where the community can work, live, and shop, but the average retail or food service job doesn’t pay more than minimum wage. The reality is that working-class folks will not be able to work and live in District NoHo.
Obaasan Lin, who currently lives in a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment in Northridge with her brother and mom, has continued to experience housing insecurity. Lin and her family were unhoused when she was younger, and while she was able to keep a roof over her head during college, she explained it’s not easy.
“In my experience, I don’t hear or see anything about affordable housing, or the opportunity of affordable housing. So it’s like, very minimal. And then if I do hear about it, it’s just extremely difficult to be able to get affordable housing,” said Lin.
Lin further explains that if the park-and-ride lot is going to be replaced, then it should reflect what the community needs. “I would like to see some space where we can support people who are on the street, whether that be affordable housing or bridge housing.”
A 2019 report from the California Housing Partnership and the Southern California Association of Nonprofit Housing stated that LA needed to build over 516,946 units of affordable housing in order to keep up with the current demand for low-income renters.
Loring explains, “You know, we’re not just talking about someone who is currently unhoused having a place to live — we’re also talking about workforce housing, we’re talking about people working at the CVS and married to a teacher. We’re just talking about regular working folks wanting to stay in this area and continue to contribute to it without contributing 60% of their income to rent. A diverse, viable community really is good for all of us.”
District NoHo is currently in environmental review, with the City set to release the draft EIR (environmental impact report) in spring. Public hearings are set to start in fall 2022.