Thursday, May 28

The Quad: Exploring pros and cons of The Agora, how it compares to other housing options

The Agora, a recently proposed housing project in Westwood, has been the center of controversy recently. (Courtesy of Aaron Green)

We throw the term “affordable housing” around a lot in the collegiate setting – everyone wants it, but many students will agree that the two words haven’t previously coexisted in an area like Westwood.

The Agora, Westwood’s newest affordable housing project is supposed to help change that. However, since its initial proposal in November the proposed housing community has been the center of local controversy as some advocate for its affordability while others question its feasibility.

The plan is to build a 16-story apartment complex on Hilgard Avenue with 64 residential units and a total of 231 bedrooms. The majority of the apartments would have three to five bedrooms with some one- and two-bedroom units.

Originally, each bedroom was planned to hold one occupant, but developers decided to double the number of beds after hearing from a number of different stakeholders and students who advocated for increasing the availability of space.

The developers of The Agora are two doctors who want to help UCLA students by building a community centered around health and wellness. Plans include a vegetable garden, a kitchen, a meditation area, study spaces, a gym, a pool and a barbecue pit.

Rent will go for $1,000 to $1,200 per month. In addition, there are more than 50 beds set aside for low-income students which will rent for approximately $500 per month.

[RELATED: Westwood Neighborhood Council opposes The Agora plans amid building controversy]

Opposition, including some students and their nonstudent neighbors in Westwood question the true affordability of such a space. Since the cost of living on the Hill in a classic triple-occupancy dorm room with a 14P meal plan is only $200 more than the most expensive residence at The Agora, some say it’s not worth it.

“By those numbers, The Agora isn’t really ‘affordable.’ At best, it isn’t even marginally better,” according to The Daily Bruin Editorial Board.

Grayson Peters, a second-year political science student and member of the North Westwood Neighborhood Council and Westwood Forward student leadership committee, said building The Agora is still worthwhile even if it ends up being more expensive than originally planned.

“The most high-income students can flock to that option (The Agora) because that would be a luxury apartment that would be convenient, and in doing so they wouldn’t bid up the other apartments,” Peters said.

Westwood is pricey partly because it’s an upscale area, and partly because the demand for housing currently exceeds the supply. It seems counterintuitive to oppose building housing for fear of it being too expensive when the issue at hand is that current housing is too expensive because there isn’t enough of it.

So far, the Undergraduate Students Associated Council, the Westwood Forward student leadership committee and the UCLA Graduate Students Association have endorsed the project. The Holmby Westwood Property Owners Association and the Westwood Neighborhood Council opposed it.

[RELATED: Westwood Forward endorses The Agora citing potential as affordable student housing]

“Even though this is our university, we’re still living side by side with residents and I think they should also have a say in what’s goes on,” said Austin Gee, a third-year biology student and director of media for Bruin Shelter, a transitional housing program for homeless undergraduate students from the greater Los Angeles Area.

Some Westwood citizens are concerned about an increase in traffic. While the concentration of students on Hilgard Avenue might increase, many won’t need to drive – they’ll just walk across the street to school. Students likely won’t jeopardize surrounding parking spots either, since 190 car parking spaces and 205 bicycle parking spaces are all part of The Agora plan.

Other opposition comes from students living in PodShare, the co-living affordable housing community currently occupying part of the land coveted by developers of The Agora. Should the city approve the project, PodShare’s lease will end a year and a half early.

The issue here is twofold: is it worth destructing a pre-existing affordable housing community just to build another? Where will the residents of PodShare go if The Agora takes over their space?

“I don’t think hostel style living is sustainable for students, especially when they only have eight month long leases,” Peters said.

While the rent per month at PodShare is about $200 cheaper than The Agora, it has only 90 beds as compared to The Agora’s proposed 462.

In a 2016 survey, the UC found 5 percent of UC students experience homelessness. For these students or for those living paycheck to paycheck, an increase in traffic seems a small price to pay for increased housing security.

“I think that stable housing is an important step towards avoiding homelessness so it (The Agora) is preventative, not curative,” Peters said.

Gee also listed affordable housing as one of the fundamental ways to prevent homelessness.

He said being able to afford housing shouldn’t encroach on students pursuit for education.

While developers await approval from the city, conversation between neighbors, stakeholders and students continues.

While some students relish in the idea of additional affordable housing in Westwood, other stakeholders prefer to conserve the Westwood as we know it today. Total consensus is unlikely, but progress toward a middle ground is not.

Gee said conversation is key when it comes to an issue this contentious.

“We could paint each other as villains but if we really come and sit down with each other and really talk about this, I think we could make real progress,” he said.

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