Skid Row Housing Trust believes good design can be a cure

Does quality of design matter when you’ve got thousands of homeless people to rehouse?

Yes, if you are Skid Row Housing Trust, the nonprofit developer that taps creative architects in the belief that well-designed supportive housing can enable recovery from the trauma of living on the streets, and knit housing for the formerly homeless into the life of the city.

An estimated 47,000 people live on the streets or in shelters in LA County; you cannot miss the tent cities lining the sidewalks from South LA to Pacific Palisades. Now there is a bond measure on the November ballot to raise $1.2 billion for supporting housing construction for the homeless.

If voters approve this measure, SRHT will be among nonprofits in Los Angeles that will seek funding for future projects.

DnA talks with Mike Alvidrez, the head of Skid Row Housing Trust; Jill Pable, editor of “Design Resources for Homelessness;” Ruth Ortiz, Eloy Torrez, Bill Fisher and Sonia Hawkins, residents of Star Apartments, The Six and New Genesis; and architects Michael Maltzan, Wade Killefer and Angela Brooks.

Check out this slide show of the projects discussed in this show and read reflections by the architects about their designs, below.

New Genesis

Wade Killefer and his firm Killefer Flammang Architects designed New Genesis, a supportive housing project on Main Street near 5th in downtown LA, completed in 2012. “The challenge,” says Killefer, was “a very dense site right in a very dense part of the city and we needed to build a place that was restful and provided a sense of community for the people living there.”

Killefer Flammang, winners of this year’s AIACC 2016 Firm Award, has built 20,000 units of housing, 4,500 of those affordable (including units for special needs, senior, substance abuse and or mental illness and for the formerly homeless). They have designed housing for the formerly homeless for Skid Row Housing Trust, SRO Housing, Path Ventures, West Hollywood Housing and Hollywood Housing.

New Genesis
New Genesis

New Genesis is different from all the others in that two-thirds of its 106 units house formerly homeless people, and the other third are given to local artists in need of affordable housing. That approach has elicited criticism from some who argued all the units should be for the formerly homeless. It also incorporates commercial spaces facing the street at ground level.

Similar to the others project, however, it incorporates design features that Skid Row Housing Trust has found from experience helps with recovery from the trauma of homelessness, including plenty of natural light and communal spaces. “Homeless people are isolated typically and they don’t have a friendship group,” Killefer says, “so this brings them together and people start to watch out for each other and realize when somebody is late coming home. And that’s how community is built.”

The courtyard also provides a sense of spaciousness for tenants whose one-room units are small, around 300 square feet. But, says Killefer, “they are similar to the units we build in for-profit developments now. They have got big windows. They are nice — small kitchen, place for a bed, place for a couch and a TV. It’s got everything you need for normal living, it’s just smaller scale. These are not the sort of places you invite your whole family over to for Thanksgiving. They’re designed for one person to come in and live a good life.”

Ruth Ortiz spent six years living on the streets before becoming a resident of New Genesis. About the project she says:

“Before I was embarrassed, I didn’t want nobody to know that I was homeless. But now, because we can have guests, I tell them, come and see my place, it’s so cool. And it helps my self-esteem, because I think to myself, you know what, I can do it.”

The Six

Skid Row Housing Trust got its start retrofitting old single room occupancy buildings, or SROs, that were in the Skid Row neighborhood dating back to the 1920s when single men flooded into Los Angeles looking for work.

With rising property values many of these structures became unavailable. And just as homelessness has spread far beyond Skid Row, so has the work of Skid Row Housing Trust.

The Six, designed by Brooks + Scarpa
The Six, designed by Brooks + Scarpa

One of their recently completed projects is The Six near MacArthur Park in the Westlake neighborhood of Los Angeles, designed by Brooks + Scarpa Architects, designers of a wide range of buildings, including Step Up on 5th in Santa Monica, for the formerly homeless and mentally disabled.

The Six has 52 apartments and studios for formerly homeless individuals, and is the Trust’s first development with a third of its permanent supportive housing aimed at veterans. That’s where the name came from: in the military, “got your six” means “I’ve got your back.”

The Six has apartments wrapped around a courtyard on the second level that offers residents a large window onto the street and a visual connection with their neighbors in this residential neighborhood.

The goal when they started, explains Angie Brooks, principal in the firm who helmed the design process, was to “link the building to the street in a more open way” than usual for “buildings of this type (that) tend to appear very defensive, with a wall on the street or a gate.”

But then they met with a building committee of “people who live in buildings that Skid Row Housing Trust manages and through a discussion we changed the design slightly so people actually enter the second floor courtyard in a more secure way and then once they’re outside in the open, public, social space on the second floor they can look over onto the sidewalk, but it’s not a direct link.”

Angie Brooks says this kind of outreach rarely occurs in designing for the formerly homeless, “and I think the design is better for it. It’s more of a refuge for the tenants, so the tenants themselves feel more protected by the building and by the space of a courtyard.”

Sonia Hawkins is a resident of The Six, and told DnA she landed there after losing her husband, her home and her business. Now she says she feels like she’s “been born again.”

Star Apartments

Star Apartments, completed in 2013, is one of the more visible projects by Skid Row Housing Trust, designed by Michael Maltzan Architecture. MMA also designed the Rainbow and New Carver apartments for SRHT, as well as the Crest apartments in Van Nuys, soon to be completed.

Star-2-WEB

Located at the corner of Sixth and Maple in downtown Los Angeles, right across the street from the old Greyhound bus terminal, the 102-unit building is a combination of modular prefabricated blocks overlaid on an existing building. It also serves as a community center for all of our residents, and has a clinic on the ground floor operated by the County Department of Health Services that provides medical services for the entire Skid Row community.

It also contains a second-floor community garden, tended largely by a resident named Bill Fisher. This space, says Fisher, is a refuge from the “madness” of the streets outside.

“It’s like a sanctuary. It’s like we have our own private park.”

Construction costs for non-profit affordable development can already be more costly than in the market sector, due to funding requirements relating to hiring and sustainability mandates and other factors. But Star Apartments was a highly experimental structure, incurring further costs. So, was it worth it?

Michael Maltzan told DnA that “the potential for significant cost savings is by reducing the amount of time that it takes to build buildings because they’re being fabricated offsite, brought in and then stacked quite quickly. That part of it all went very, very well. It was in that interface between the prefabrication and the other part of the building that wasn’t pre-fabricated — that was built in more conventional ways — that we didn’t see the time savings that we had hoped and so we didn’t realize the cost savings as completely as we had hoped.”

But this did not deter SRHT, which, he says, was very supportive, understanding that “if you are going to try to create really ground-up new precedents for housing there are going to be moments when it doesn’t necessarily go as smoothly as you hope or you expect. But in doing that, one of the benefits is that we created a pathway; we created a precedent for doing multifamily prefabrication in this city… to deal with this seemingly intractable problem of not just housing for formerly homeless individuals, but affordability and housing as a whole.”

For Maltzan, Star Apartments fits into a larger ambition for housing in Los Angeles. “People have criticized us as architects about these buildings and whether we’re building a too fancy version of housing for this community, which I find offensive. But it misses the bigger point, which is that we should be building all architecture in the city as if it is the most important building that we can make. Because it’s the accumulation of all of these pieces that Los Angeles will be known for. And I don’t see how you can discriminate from one type of project to another. They all need to be architecture at the highest level we can achieve.”