Designing a Solution for Homelessness

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The Los Angeles City Council is weighing two separate measures to fund solutions to homelessness. One likely applicant for those funds will be the nonprofit developer Skid Row Housing Trust, which has built supportive housing by some of LA’s leading architects. Can good architecture and planning help re-integrate the formerly homeless back into society?

Skid Row Housing Trust is a nonprofit supportive housing developer that is headquartered in downtown LA’s Skid Row. It operates 25 buildings with almost 1,800 permanent and supportive homes, but the thing that really distinguishes Skid Row Housing Trust, run by a trained planner named Mike Alvidrez, is that it places great emphasis on the design and planning of its buildings, in the belief that through design you can actually help enable the process of reintegration back into society.

(Listen to the DnA broadcast above, to hear from Mike Alvidrez as well as architects Michael Maltzan, Wade Killefer and Angela Brooks, and residents of three SRHT buildings, Star Apartments, New Genesis and The Six.)

Supportive permanent housing is subsidized rental housing that in addition to providing a permanent, subsidized rental home, also provides on-site supportive services including medical care, counseling and other community services.

New Genesis Apartments for Skid Row Housing Trust by Killefer Flammang architects.
New Genesis Apartments for Skid Row Housing Trust by Killefer Flammang architects. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

It’s predicated on a belief in Housing First, namely that you solve homelessness by providing homes, then you work on the supportive strategies to reengage the formerly homeless, treat any mental health and substance abuse issues, and set them on a path toward permanent housing.

Alvidrez and his team believe very strongly that “an individual’s physical environment forms the basis for their social interactions, affecting how they perceive themselves and interact with others.”

To that end Skid Row Housing has hired some of the most inventive architects in LA, including Michael Maltzan, Koning Eizenberg Architecture, Killefer Flammang, Brooks + Scarpa and many others.

But even though the architectural appearance varies widely, from the very stark modern Star Apartments by Michael Maltzan to a retrofitted Victorian building by Killefer Flammang, what they all have in common is communal spaces, lots of light and a direct engagement with the street.

Mike Alvidrez, CEO of Skid Row Housing Trust
Mike Alvidrez, CEO of Skid Row Housing Trust (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The New Genesis building on Main Street mixes up the formerly homeless and artists in affordable units at the top of the building. Rent is about a third of the income for the formerly homeless tenants, and everybody occupies their own micro-unit of about 350-400 square feet.

Alvidrez said they also care very much about spending people’s tax dollars with care and commitment, saying that so often public institutions can be uninviting buildings, particularly in the experience of the homeless.

“When you think about the systems that homeless people go through, they have the worst designed buildings that they experience — the welfare office, the mental health office, the emergency room in the hospital — all of which are examples of that message: we don’t really care much about you or what you think of us,” Alvidrez said, adding that buildings that inspire pride benefit both the occupant and the surrounding businesses and users of the street.

Listen to Frances Anderton talk to Steve Chiotakis about Mike Alvidrez and Skid Row Housing Trust, below.

What if you want to see the creation of more affordable and supportive housing in your neighborhood? Anne Zimmerman, architect, boardmember for Venice Community Housing and a steering committee member for the recent Design for Dignity conference hosted by AIA/LA, shares her reflections and advice, here.