In Los Angeles, the often-exorbitant cost of new housing stock often leaves it out of reach for many prospective buyers and renters.  A $100,000 design challenged launched by the Mayor's office seeks to address the city's spiraling affordability crisis by searching out new typologies for ever-elusive "missing-middle" housing.

The initiative, which is being administered by the City's Chief Design Officer Christopher Hawthorne, is called Low-Rise LA.  Architects and landscape architects have been challenged to submit "appealing and sustainable," models of low-rise, multi-unit housing which could provide more affordable living accommodations at scale. 

The challenge is broken into four categories, defined as follows:

  • Fourplex: Assuming a 50-by-150-foot lot, submit a design that includes four ground-up units, with a minimum unit size of 500 square feet, at least one unit of 1,000 square feet or more in size, and a maximum total square footage for the four units of 4,500.
  • Subdivision: Submit a design for a standalone duplex on site of 2,500 square feet carved from an existing single-family lot, taking advantage of assumed smaller minimum lot size guidelines.
  • (Re)Distribution: Divide a landmark existing house into four units, or distribute its interior square footage across its lot as four separate units. Entrants to choose one house from a list of famous/iconic designs (e.g., Hollyhock House, South Seas House, etc.), a full list of which will be provided.
  • Corners: Assuming neighboring homeowners who choose to combine their lots, at least one of which occupies a corner, submit a design for 6-10 units across these two newly connected lots, including a so-called Accessory Retail Unit, which is to say a reimagined corner store.

The contest will award cash prizes to 12 winning proposals, with $10,000 for first-place finishers, $3,500 for second-place finishers, and $1,500 for third-place finishers.

To register, e-mail with the subject line “Low-Rise Design Challenge.”

The design contest, according to its official website, comes at a time at which Los Angeles's sprawling 20th century development patterns have pushed new housing into distant locales which are prone to wildfires and force long commutes onto residents.

At the same time, Los Angeles boasts a rich history of smaller-scale multi-family housing typologies - including bungalow courts and dingbats - which have flourished in decades past, but are today illegal to build due to parking requirements and other zoning rules.  Per a 2019 report from the McKinsey Global Institute, these smaller housing developments - standing no more than two stories in height - cost approximately $175,000 per unit, a relative bargain when compared with the price tags of larger multifamily buildings.

While larger developments - ushered through via the Transit Oriented Communities guidelines - and accessory dwelling units account for much of the City's annual housing production, the design contest is billed as an opportunity to address a "policy donut" in Los Angeles' approach to housing - specifically low-rise, multi-family developments.

Some examples of these lower-scale projects are already being shepherded through the approval process by non-profit developer Restore Neighborhoods LA, which has taken inspiration from the classic bungalow courts at new projects in South Los Angeles and Willowbrook.

The search for new low-rise typologies also comes just two months after the release of the draft allocations of SCAG's 6th cycle regional housing needs assessment, which charges the City of Los Angeles with building more than 450,000 new residential units between 2021 and 2029.  Absent sweeping statewide legislation to streamline the development of new housing (or the passage of a local ballot measure to similar effect), the City will be forced to realize that goal through updates to its 35 community plans.