How live-work can serve the working class
Late last year, Mike Pyatok, whose firm, Pyatok Architects in Oakland, California specializes in multifamily and affordable housing, was interviewed by Builder Online about the subject of live-work. While Mike touched on many of the same subjects treated in Live-Work Planning and Design: Zero-Commute Housing, he raised some important points about the ways that regulations and standard ways of viewing live-work do not “serve those who need it most,” i.e the working class individuals who need to make a living in whatever way they can, which often means working out of their residences. An example he gives, “a woman using her kitchen to make tamales to sell from a street cart,” is something that would never be permitted in an affordable housing project due to management policies and regulations that exist on several levels.
As Mike states in the interview, citing as his pet peeve: “The rules and regulations that come along with public or non-profit housing, [which] disallow use of the home or apartment for the kinds of work that’s taking place in upwardly mobile neighborhoods or in private housing where landlords look the other way. The irony is, publicly assisted housing exists to help people pull themselves up by their bootstraps, so they have money for essentials like food and transportation. But it was never imagined to be a place where people could work at home.”
Here is a link to the interview:
To elaborate on Pyatok’s main point, there are at least four layers of regulatory impediments to affordable live-work for working class folks or working artists.
1) Affordable housing finance agencies (and FHA) impose a maximum percentage of non-residential space in housing projects, often around 20%. Financing for anything related to job creation is in another silo downtown, usually in economic development departments. To finance a live-work incubator today, one would need to get funding from both housing and economic development sources. It’s a cumbersome process that few if any have attempted.
2) Most planning regulations are based on the Euclidean model that separates cities into zones accommodating a single use, which true live-work is decidedly not. Many cities do allow live-work in renovated buildings originally aimed at artists, and most allow home occupation (low impact, with no employees or walk-in trade). Mixed use, mixed occupancy buildings are often permitted in downtown areas, but the kind of live-work Mike is talking about, called a ShopHouse in Asia and a Flexhouse in our work is allowed in some places but not many, and the kind of freewheeling use permissions as a building “learns” are generally only permitted under form-based codes, a relatively new idea that–contrary to Euclidean Zoning–places greater emphasis on the form of buildings and less on regulating their uses. A flexhouse can adapt to changing economic times and the individual needs of its user, without its owner or tenant being required to go back to the planning department every time the economy hiccups.
3) As covered in an upcoming post to this discussion group, financing for mixed use development—and live-work is the ultimate in mixed use– is difficult to secure for all types of development due to the myriad regulations, subsidies and practices that favor single-use suburban land use patterns, otherwise known as conventional sprawl development (CSD).
4) Building codes have been an issue for live-work since its re-emergence fifty years ago. However, the 2009 International Building Code (and its successor, the 2012 IBC, not yet adopted) does include Section 419, Live/work units, which, while it covers a limited range of unit types, is a significant improvement over the code workarounds that preceded it. The primary issue addressed in Section 419 is separation of working and living spaces, the omission of which is permitted as long as the unit is sprinklered, only has work activity on its main floor, does not accommodate more than five nonresident employees, and contains no more than 3,000 square feet. This covers most units, although not all, such as a single-floor loft in a converted warehouse. Other building code issues include disabled access for employees and walk-in trade, relaxed codes for renovation of existing buildings, and the types of work activities that are permitted in a unit without a fire-rated separation.
Clearly, regulations, financing mechanisms and best practices need to be coordinated in ways that enable live-work to be an accepted, well-understood land use and building type that meets the needs of individuals, families and communities at all income levels. As Pyatok says, we need to allow our working class to be able to make a living with no more impediments than exist in the developing world, and to break down the artificial but legal barriers between living and working activities; we must recognize that they often do not exist in reality and should not be required to be separated based on impractical code provisions.
Someone needs to restructure regulation for live-work at all levels who understands how it functions and can work for entirely new sets of users. Enterprise zones, or areas where such types are encouraged may be a good idea. It should be a basic civil right that all citizens have: I am permitted to work where I live. We need to allow our working class to be able to make a living with no more impediments than exist in the developing world, and to break down the artificial but legal barriers between living and working activities; we must recognize that they often do not exist in reality and should not be required to be separated based on impractical code provisions.
In the white-collar world, the coworking movement creates a café-like atmosphere in which independent professionals can work alongside each other and yet not be alone—and in fact sometimes collaborate spontaneously. Shared work spaces for particular trades, combined with living quarters—perhaps above—are a building type that should be encouraged and even subsidized–a sort of blue collar incubator. In individual townhouses, the flexhouse configuration that allows work activities at least on the ground floor makes sense, as it has in cities for the last 5,000 years. Such new building types would benefit individuals and society in many, many ways. Live-work is, after all, the only building type that provides both housing and employment within the same unit.
Thomas Dolan is an Oakland-based architect who focuses on live-work, mixed use urban infill. He designed and built the first purpose-built live-work in the US — in the mid-1980s. He has written live-work planning and building codes and spoken nationally on the subject. His book, Live-Work Planning and Design: Zero Commute Housing, will be published by Wiley in April.
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