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The Big Fix

How High Design Can Help the Homeless

How High Design Can Help the Homeless
Skid Row Housing Trust

Sometimes when Theresa Hwang is visiting a project site, maybe the 102-unit Michael Maltzan apartments rising from the corner of East 6th Street and Maple Avenue on the edge of downtown Los Angeles, pedestrians will stop and gawk and inquire about what’s coming.

"What are you building?" they invariably want to know.

"It’s housing."

"Can we move in?"

"Well," Hwang then responds, "are you formerly homeless?"

And this always throws people for a loop. Hwang’s organization, the Skid Row Housing Trust, has been renovating and providing permanent supportive housing for the city's homeless for more than 20 years. But more recently, dating back to a first collaboration with Maltzan about eight years ago, the Trust has been building its own developments that remarkably mimic market-rate condos. Really striking market-rate condos.

The strategy is built on the idea that high design matters for the homeless, too, because it changes the dynamic between these buildings and their residents – and between both of them and the communities in which they’re located. Nothing can deflate the NIMBYism that inevitably accompanies social housing quite like a building that looks like this:


Courtesy: Skid Row Housing Trust

"Especially as we get closer to downtown, people are always like, 'I don’t want you to build a complex that’s going to have all these homeless people in it, I don’t want to live next door to homeless people,'" says Hwang, who is the Enterprise Rose Architecture Fellow with the Trust. "Architecture really helps sometimes by showing it's not a 'homeless project,' it's not a shelter. It’s an apartment building."

The Trust’s residents, all single men and women, live in these buildings permanently, for years at a time. They have rental agreements. They pay 30 percent of their income (although that income is typically one percent or less of the median in the area), and subsidies cover the rest. The whole arrangement – the construction of these buildings and the support that makes it possible for people to live in them – is funded by tax credits, state, city, county and federal money, rental subsidies and private financing. "You name it," Hwang says, "and we use it."

About 100 formerly homeless people live in the above Maltzan design, the Carver Apartments, which were completed in 2010. The building has a kind of protective sawtooth exterior, but a vast sunlit interior courtyard that provides safe open space.


Courtesy: Skid Row Housing Trust

This video of life inside of it is currently featured in the National Building Museum's House & Home exhibit in Washington, D.C.:

A building that looks like this also changes what it means to live in subsidizing housing, not because the amenities are particularly luxurious (these apartments are generally efficiencies), but because absolutely nothing about this property stigmatizes the people who are associated with it.

"I do believe that having a building that stands proud on the street has a huge impact on the residents where they can proudly point to the buildings and be like 'this is where I live,'" Hwang says. "The fact that people would be like 'wow, I wonder what’s going on in there,' that kind of notice and attention is something they’re proud of."

Social housing is often known for drawing attention to itself, usually for its iconically drab barracks-style construction and ugly concrete towers. The Trust has essentially traveled all the way to the other end of the architectural spectrum, bypassing buildings that just blend in for a kind that stand out in a whole different way.

"No one has said ‘oh, can you make your buildings more boring, or less pronounced?'" Hwang says. This population needs to blend in socially, she says, not architecturally. And by making these buildings look nothing like stereotypes of what they are, the Trust is able to de-institutionalize them.

High-end architects have become increasingly interested in serving that mission, particularly at a time during the recession when firms haven’t been quite as busy building new commercial properties, concert halls and luxury housing. "We haven’t had to twist anyone’s arm in order to partner with us," Hwang says of the architects. Although this work is clearly of a different kind.

"We need to be more thoughtful with where we invest in design, and with other areas that need to be a little bit more bare-bones," she says. That courtyard in the Carver Apartments, for instance, isn’t just an aesthetic luxury. It ventilates the building and delivers much of its daylight. And those decorative metal fins are in fact structural supports that also conceal drain pipes. "We don’t have the same budget as the Disney Concert Hall of course," Hwang says. "But I think you make the best with what you have."

Maltzan’s latest project, the 95,000-square-foot partially prefabricated Star Apartments that are going up on East 6th Street, has a cost estimate of $19.3 million. That Frank Gehry-designed Disney Concert Hall? It ran $130 million (not counting the massive parking garage). And each of these highly designed homes for the formerly homeless, although they cost more than most low-rise, cheap shelters, is grounded on the conclusion of a growing body of research: money spent on quality permanent supportive housing is public money not spent on the health care, public safety, incarceration and temporary shelter costs of city residents who have nowhere to live.


The Star Apartments. Courtesy: Michael Maltzan Architecture

Top image of the interior courtyard of the Carver Apartments courtesy the Skid Row Housing Trust.

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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