Design for Dignity: Everyday Actions to Alleviate Homelessness

The Los Angeles City Council is considering two separate measures to address homelessness in the Southland — a $1.2 billion bond to pay for housing for the homeless over a decade, or a 10-year parcel tax to raise $80 million per year until 2027.

The council has yet to select a revenue-raising strategy but both signal an effort to address the region’s mounting numbers of homeless, currently estimated at about 27,000 people. 

However, although many Angelenos want to see the homeless housed, they do not always welcome affordable and supportive housing projects in their own neighborhoods.

Anne Zimmerman is a board member of Venice Community Housing and longtime advocate for affordable housing who has thought a lot about the structural causes of homelessness. Below, she talks about the ways in which nonprofit developers, architects and those supportive of housing solutions can help create shelter.

New Genesis Apartments for Skid Row Housing Trust by Killefer Flammang architects.
New Genesis Apartments for Skid Row Housing Trust, designed by Killefer Flammang architects.

Land, property rights and home as the embodiment of the American Dream is a structural construct in the USA, made by our systems of finance, government insurance of home mortgage instruments, myriad other policies and promulgated American myths of individualism, exceptionalism, dreams and realities. Land in the USA has always been made a primary source of wealth and power.

No matter what we do individually, and as a nation, there will always be the very trapped poor, the indigent, the uncared for mentally ill. Society has responded differently over the decades. We have locked people in poor houses when it was illegal to be poor. We have ghettoized the poor in inevitable slums (zero maintenance and exposure to opportunities creates slums). We have locked them in mental hospitals. We have let people out of the mental hospitals with no community assistance for transitions or maintaining health (under Reagan). We have ignored the damage our wars have incurred on those returning home (let alone all over the world).

We have tried many things and experienced many failures over the decades. LA’s wartime worker housing was heralded and needed, but when it became public housing for the poorest of the poor, support services such as job training, and property maintenance were not implemented. The inevitable happens. Nothing is simple, or black and white. This is a complex situation and problem.

Some thoughts on solutions that can be incorporated in everyday life are below:

Note: the meaningless euphemism “affordable housing” is not used much here. Technically this can be defined as monthly rental cost as a percentage of income (~25-30%) when ones’ income is a percentage below the area median income (AMI) ($49,682 in 2014 in City of Los Angeles, from census data).

Gateway Apartments, designed by Brooks Scarpa, contains 21 one-bedroom units for formerly-homeless individuals. The project was developed by Hollywood Community Housing Corporation in partnership with Venice Community Housing Corporation.
Gateway Apartments, designed by Brooks Scarpa, contains 21 one-bedroom units for formerly-homeless individuals. The project was developed by Hollywood Community Housing Corporation in partnership with Venice Community Housing Corporation.

Daily Solutions

Look unhoused people in the eye, smile and consider greeting and engaging in conversation, if you have time. Personally, I support organizations active in the nonjudgmental / nonreligious provision of services and housing. I do not give money to people directly on the street. When I walk home with my restaurant leftovers, I often see someone who can enjoy them even more than I will, so I offer them the food, and water.

When a project for low-income housing or support services for the unhoused or mentally ill comes before your neighborhood group or city council, speak in support of the project and why it is important. Invite these projects to be your neighbors and create more support for them. Unhoused people on the street, suffering, make us all feel badly. How can housing and helping these people be considered a detriment to any neighborhood? No neighborhood is immune; suffering humans are everywhere and anywhere. You may just not see them.

Gently educate your other architect and community friends and colleagues so they realize where there is successful and “invisible” low income housing and support services for the unhoused. Expose individuals to the scale of LA’s skid row, some of the amazing projects there, and pros and cons of concentrations of services and housing.

Seek out “angel” donors and introduce them to the developers and makers of great projects. Low-income housing can be a community builder and a positive “gentrifier”. Your wealthy client may not have considered opportunities for investing in projects in a personal way.

Support zoning and building code incentives for affordability and appropriate “highest and best uses” for property development. Support parking limitations as the cost of parking is huge in dollars and wasted space. Encourage use of LAMC 14.00A.9, which allows up to 6 trailers or tiny homes as Public Benefit Projects.

Support safe overnight parking, with toilets, showers and laundry facilities. Work with providers on the design and siting of these efforts. (For architects: Beware pro bono services and define carefully, if that is something you wish to do. Reference http://www.aia.org/practicing/akr/AIAB090175. Personally, I do not recommend architects giving away services due to the diminishment of our impacts as a result.)

The Six, 52 apartments near MacArthur Park, designed for Skid Row Housing Trust, by Brooks Scarpa.
The Six, 52 apartments near MacArthur Park, designed for Skid Row Housing Trust, by Brooks Scarpa.

Long Term Impacts

There are many potential clients for facilities providing services and for affordable housing. These are often nonprofits operating within strict funding guidelines. Some are risk takers and hire less experienced and creative firms. Some are more conservative.

Architects need to “think” more like their clients and the residents and users of these buildings that are homes. These clients generally maintain, own and operate their capital investments so they have a long-term vision tempered with tight first cost budgets.

Quality and beautiful architecture is not class or income-based. We all deserve this. Participate actively in the process of positive long-term development and change. Accessibility is a primary concern, for disabled, and aging populations. How to make density fairer, more environmentally sensitive (greener), and more adaptable over time?

Support funding mechanisms for low-income housing development. Has political expedience and reality made obfuscation a necessity? I would love to see a continued basic commitment from the public for funding, monitoring of the uses and effectiveness of the funding and more and more follow through.

Pay attention to what the City of Los Angeles Housing Authority (HACLA) is doing with their major land holdings. Support increased density, quality design and construction and increasing the number of homes for the poorest of the poor, while diversifying the communities. This may be the most we can hope for.

Avoid what happened with Pico Aliso Hope VI rebuild where development of cheaply constructed, underwhelming site, building design and land use along with fewer units overall, and many fewer units for the poorest of the poor, were built.

Transitional housing for many groups has seen funding eliminated. These have been shelters for victims of domestic violence or other types of “half way” houses. These are effective, usually small scale, and really help the flow of individuals, keeping them and getting them into positive and productive lives. These should be supported, nurtured and encouraged.

Understand that it takes about 4 years minimum to acquire property, fund, design, permit and construct projects.

Vote, call and email your political representatives to support meaningful actions. Prove that politicians may misjudge their constituencies. Support national housing policies and awareness.

This article was originally published in the AIA/LA newsletter,  following “Design for Dignity”, a marathon one-day conference and symposium at Inner City Arts on 6 May 2016 that focused on homelessness and affordability of homes. Anne Zimmerman, AIA, was on the conference steering committee.

The image at the top of the page is by Desiree Van Hoek, from her book and exhibit of photographs, Skid Row LA, displayed last year at the WUHO Gallery in Hollywood.

Read more about the work of the Skid Row Housing Trust, here.