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Five winning ideas to build housing more quickly and cheaply for L.A.’s homeless community

Five winning ideas to build housing more quickly and cheaply for L.A.’s homeless community
Winning idea: A rendering of a two-car garage converted into a studio apartment for a homeless person. (United Dwellings)

One idea is to assemble micro communities out of polymer panels. Another is to revive the iconic L.A. bungalow courtyard. A third is to convert two-car garages into studio apartments across suburbia.

Those projects, and two others to build more-conventional housing using prefab modules, have been named winners of the Los Angeles County innovation challenge — a competition for $4.5 million in Measure H sales tax revenue. Fifty-three developers submitted entries, each offering ways to build and finance housing for homeless people.

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As fanciful as some of the winning projects may be, they will all end homelessness for dozens of families and individuals, said Phil Ansell, head of the L.A. County Homeless Initiative.

Even more important “is the promise that these approaches will result in hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of units of housing being built in Los Angeles County more cheaply and more quickly,” Ansell said. “Scalability is fundamental to our objective.”

The innovation challenge is part of a growing push by local government, business and philanthropic leaders to break both the city’s and county’s dependency on a federal tax-credit program that for decades has been the bedrock of financing affordable and supportive housing.

As city and county voters have committed new local taxes to the homeless crisis, the slow and increasingly costly practice of building traditional, tax-credit-financed apartment buildings has become an impediment to getting homeless people into housing quickly.

For months, a citizen committee set up to oversee Proposition HHH, the city’s $1.2-billion homeless housing bond, has been raising concerns over setbacks and costs that have escalated to more than $500,000 per unit. In January, Mayor Eric Garcetti set aside $120 million from the bond to solicit innovative proposals to build 1,000 housing units without tax credits.

The county, with its innovation challenge, will use a smaller amount from Measure H — $4.5 million in awards, and $500,000 to administer the innovation challenge and monitor the housing projects — to test the best ideas.

A panel of judges — including representatives from local government, the housing industry and nonprofit sector —winnowed the applicants down to 12 finalists based on four criteria: “creative,” “achievable,” “meaningful” and “scalable.”

The following five winners were announced Feb. 1 at the downtown architectural school, SCI-Arc:

Houses that can float

A village in the Amazon was the inspiration for the project proposed by LifeArk, a company that builds houses that float.

After tiring of designing high-rises, architect Charles Wee tackled the problem of annual flooding in the Peruvian village where his cousin worked with indigenous people. Wee’s solution was a molded polymer panel that can be assembled into a variety of floor plans with basic tools.

Molded polymer house and schematic.
Molded polymer house and schematic. (LifeArk)

“We have made all of the master molds,” Wee said, accepting the award. “Out of those molds, thousands of parts can be stamped. Roof, columns, floors can come together to allow any configuration on any kind of site.”

Another cousin, who works for the homeless services agency Illumination Foundation, drew Wee’s attention to the homeless crisis.

LifeArk is now purchasing land in El Monte and working with Illumination Foundation to build a community of three buildings for 16 homeless tenants. LifeArk will use the grant money to get certification from the California Department of Housing and Community Development, Wee said.

Houses that can stack

Most of L.A. County is built on a grid, covered in basic 50-by-150-foot-rectangle residential lots. Then, there are odd shapes and sizes for parking lots and other lots that are becoming obsolete, said Angie Brooks, managing principal at the architecture firm Brooks + Scarpa.

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What if one design for housing could be used on any of them?

Brooks + Scarpa has answered that question with a system it calls the Nest. It’s prefabricated housing that can be assembled on a basic lot or scaled up to any size, stacked up to five stories.

A single-story Nest house.
A single-story Nest house. (Books + Scarpa)
Nest houses, when stacked.
Nest houses, when stacked. (Brooks + Scarpa)

“This approach reduces construction time by about 50% and cost by about 10% to 25%,” Brooks said.

The company will use its $1-million award to build a prototype able to house five homeless people and that can be replicated by any group in any community, she said.

Houses for a social good

FlyawayHomes, spun off by the nonprofit homeless-services provider the People Concern, won $1 million to erect privately financed modular buildings on properties that don’t require City Council approval. The company opened a 33-unit project for the homeless in South Los Angeles last fall, has a second project under construction, and will use the award to secure land for a third.

“We asked ourselves, what if we could disrupt the status quo by creating a new way of building that is replicable and affordable, sustainable and beautiful, and would brighten any neighborhood,” said Sarah Jessup, the firm’s chief investment officer.

Additional funding for Flyaway’s projects comes from private investors who are willing to risk their money for a 5% return to accomplish a social good.

“In the future,” Jessup said, “we will look to leverage this private capital with some public debt financing to further increase the speed and reduce the cost of development.”

Revamp that granny flat

Until last April, Steven Dietz had not heard the term “accessory dwelling unit.” The co-founder of the venture-capital firm Upfront Ventures said a light went on when he assessed the numbers.

“The concept made a lot of sense to me that we could build affordable housing by increasing the density of single-family residences,” Dietz said.“There are a lot of these garages — a quarter-million in Los Angeles County — and we know where every single one” is.

The business opportunity was in financing conversions of garages into accessory dwelling units — or granny flats — for low- and middle-income homeowners who lacked the cash to do it alone but had the desire to manage such units themselves.

His new company, United Dwelling, has signed leases on 12 properties with accessory dwelling units. Dietz hopes to grow rapidly and turn about 10% of his rentals into supportive housing.

A converted two-car-garage.
A converted two-car-garage. (United Dwellings)

He will use the $1 million in award money to pay bonuses — $500, for now — on top of rent as an incentive to homeowners who might be leery of taking in a homeless person.

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“What we really hope and believe is true is that familiarity and comfort with the tenant who is a voucher tenant will reduce that price fairly rapidly,” Dietz said.

Bringing bungalows back

Sometime this year, residents near 81st Street and Vermont Avenue will be getting queries from Restore Neighborhoods Los Angeles asking if they would invest in an eight-unit development for homeless people.

The nonprofit, which restores and develops small-scale housing, won a $500,000 award for a plan to sell an equity stake in the project. The goal is to both finance the project and win neighborhood support.

The project will revive an iconic housing model. “It’s going to be the first bungalow-court project built in Los Angeles in 70 years,” said project manager Jason Neville.

The firm’s research found that, in the 1920s, the 23,000 bungalow-court units in Los Angeles housed 7% of the population.

Bungalow-court revival
Bungalow-court revival (Restore Neighborhoods Los Angeles)

“It was the predominant form of housing until modern zoning codes required parking,” Neville said.

The surge of transit-oriented zoning, which reduces or waives parking requirements for housing projects near transit corridors, has created an opportunity for L.A.’s past to have a part in solving a current crisis.

Next steps

Housing advocates hope the five winning concepts will pave the way for innovation on a larger scale in L.A.

In seeking City Council approval for the city’s $120-million pilot in January, Ben Winter, Garcetti’s chief of housing policy, said the city would model it after the county’s “call for the best and brightest ideas in the private sector.”

Last month, United Way of Greater Los Angeles, the nonprofit giant that spearheaded both Proposition HHH and Measure H, also issued a call for innovation with a report offering six strategies to increase the supply of supportive housing for homeless people.

The nonprofit’s task force of business leaders urged the creation of a fund of “low-return, risk-tolerant” private capital, packaging local public dollars with private capital and using public rental subsidies to support privately financed housing construction.

The task force also called for a study of shared housing, in which two or more nonrelatives live together — a departure from the one-person, one-bedroom model that has been the widely accepted standard for supportive housing.

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