The Agora addresses growing problem of high demand for housing in Westwood
The Agora is an apartment building proposed for Westwood. Despite criticisms, it could actually help reduce the lack of affordable housing for students by expanding their housing options. (Daily Bruin file photo)
By Emily Merz
March 17, 2019 10:54 p.m.
For one of the most bustling university locations with a student body of more than 44,000 students, you would expect to see fast-paced development to meet the ever-growing demand for student housing.
But Westwood’s housing market is stuck in the 20th century.
The consequences of this slow development affect every student here: Westwood has one of the highest rents in Los Angeles, students are going further into debt to get their degrees and landlords can keep upping the prices for tiny units.
All the units on the campus’ west side, where many undergraduates live, are ancient. Most were built before California’s housing crisis, when low-rise buildings and town houses were enough to meet demand. Limited developable space, resistance from neighbors and a lengthy and expensive approval process are to blame for Westwood’s slow-to-nonexistent housing development.
Now that the North Village is all built out, landlords can charge absurdly high rents, averaging more than $4,000 per month for two-bedroom apartments. The only solution is to expand the housing supply, so students have more power in deciding where to live and landlords are pressured to make rents fairer.
One project could catalyze that development: The Agora on Hilgard Avenue.
The Agora is a high-rise apartment building proposed by two developers who are also physicians. It’s meant to be housing for students, with study rooms and lots of common space intended to create a community for residents. But the project has faced steep opposition, from resident complaints about destroying views to claims that it’s not affordable.
Residents are grasping at straws to defend their own interests.
Aaron Green, the project representative, said the 16-story high-rise building offers a much-needed 462 beds, 52 of which will be classified as affordable and cost less than $500 per month.
“The remaining units will rent for between $1,000 to $1,200,” Green added.
That kind of rent is on par with many apartments in the Village and is comparable to the price of living on the Hill. Moreover, the fact that the project is adding 52 affordable units to Westwood is huge for an area that’s barely been developed in the last 20 years, especially since almost all recent development has been luxury apartments.
It makes sense for developers to build luxury apartments, since it’s hard to turn a profit with such limited space to develop, and also because high-end projects face less resistance from planners and neighbors.
But all of these luxury units are not able to meet the amount of demand for housing nor the price range that students can afford.
The Agora stands to reverse that trend. Even if its units are not inherently affordable, it addresses a key issue in Westwood: There just isn’t enough housing. Students who want to live in luxury units, students looking for cheaper apartments and graduate students all compete for the same apartments, allowing landlords to charge increasingly high rents for tiny spaces.
“The Agora is a first step toward dealing with Westwood’s student housing crisis,” Green said. “Experts, including UCLA professors, all agree: You have to increase supply to deal with high demand if you want to lower rents.”
The Agora is providing market-rate housing in an area desperately in need of housing. But because it’s a high-rise that brings more students into a quaint neighborhood at the edge of the Village, residents have fought tooth and nail to prevent its approval. From arguments about destroying neighborhood character to ruining skyline views to claims that the project is not affordable and thus against student interests, residents have thrown many contradictory arguments at the wall to see what sticks.
They’ve even made a website combining contradictory comments about affordability and zoning regulations. They go as far as claiming they’re for affordable housing, but only when it is “compatible” with the neighborhood behind it – quite the oxymoron.
This backlash is typical of every student housing project, though. The last major housing project here was completed in 2006.
“Because every large student project always gets large community opposition, developers have been afraid of coming into Westwood,” said Michael Skiles, president of the North Westwood Neighborhood Council and the Graduate Students Association.
The Agora is crucial for precedent. If it is approved, it would signal to developers throughout Los Angeles that Westwood is a great place to build student housing, and that it is profitable. Not approving the project would continue to show developers that neighborhood forces here are too strong and are not worth fighting.
It’s understandable residents are concerned about how the project will change their neighborhood’s character and the potential it has for lowering property values as a consequence of being near dense housing. But these homeowners have benefited highly from the housing crisis, with their home values rising well above millions of dollars, which is nothing near what most of them paid when they first came here.
It’s classic NIMBY-ism: They got their housing while they could, and now they want to exclude students from the market, who, if they lived near these million-dollar homes, could contribute to a marginal decrease in their values.
The Agora would just set back that equilibrium to a more reasonable level – one in which students aren’t priced out of the neighborhood they call home.