Opinion: L.A. finally has the money to fight homelessness. Here’s how architecture can help the cause
Two and a half years ago, my brother Daren died as a result of his struggles with homelessness and schizophrenia. Criminalized for his mental illness for most of his life, he died a preventable death in jail after being denied the medical care he deserved.
His death coincided with my return to Los Angeles after several years abroad. In my absence, my hometown had become unaffordable for too many, and a new legion of people had been cast out onto the streets. My grief over my brother’s loss was amplified by the suffering I saw.
For the record:
9:52 p.m. Oct. 3, 2023A previous version of this story said that L.A.’s occupancy rate stood at 3%. This is the city’s vacancy rate.
My work as an architect, designer and teacher suddenly no longer mattered to me. My clients were rich and languished over wallpaper choices. My students and their curriculum focused on abstract formal exercises. We treated architecture as a product rather than a tool to aid humanity. Shelter should be a human right, not a luxury reserved for those who can afford it.
But what could I, as an individual and an architect, actually do to make a difference?
L.A. was then, and continues to be, in the midst of an extreme housing shortage. The city’s vacancy rate stands at 3%. With prices rising, more people get knocked off the lowest rung of the housing ladder each month and end up on the streets. Getting back into housing from that point is difficult at best.
Thankfully, there’s hope on the horizon. In the last two elections, Los Angeles voters overwhelmingly supported both Proposition HHH and Measure H, which combined will permanently rehouse thousands of people living on L.A.’s streets and provide services to keep tens of thousands more from falling into homelessness in the first place.
And yet, even though the city has money to finally solve our homelessness crisis, salvation for those living on the streets seems as far away as ever.
Permanent supportive housing works. The trouble is, each project has a lead time of two to five years minimum. That is an eternity if you’re homeless.
On top of that, while Angelenos have proved they are willing to pay to make homelessness go away, nothing grinds progress to a halt quicker than the prospect of building a shelter in our backyards. Lingering NIMBYism combined with soaring housing costs will make acting on the promise of Proposition HHH and Measure H a challenge.
It is here where architecture may be able to provide some assistance.
It’s obvious why many Angelenos don’t want shelters in their neighborhoods — they tend to be massive facilities with lines of people in various states of desperation hovering, waiting for their chance for a warm meal and a bed.
But they don’t have to be that way. Shelters don’t have to be ugly. Or enormous. Or look any different from your average apartment complex. They don’t even have to be permanent. Design can, and should, help us overcome our collective aversion to homelessness so we can get people housed sooner.
This past fall, architect and USC professor R. Scott Mitchell and I taught a class on “bridge housing” — transitional housing for the homeless to get them off the street while they wait for something more permanent to open up. Our goal was to see whether we could find a model that everyone in the city could rally behind. To make sure our effort wasn’t pie-in-the-sky artistic idealism — incapable of ever being realized — we partnered with Hope of the Valley Rescue Mission and worked closely with Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office, the L.A. departments of Building and Safety and City Planning, proactive council districts, Skid Row Housing Trust, the Downtown Women’s Center and members of the homeless community.
Months later, the result of this collaboration is something we call “Homes for Hope” — a flexible, affordable and code-compliant solution for bridge housing.
It works like this: Homes for Hope consists of prefabricated housing pods that can be rapidly deployed or dismantled as needed and can be customized to fit virtually any site. Transported via flatbed truck and installed with a basic forklift, these 92-square-foot units cost $25,000 each, including on-site labor and construction. The cost will drop dramatically with a shift to mass production.
A base unit can be modified easily to form shared bathroom and communal spaces. Additionally, the units can be customized to meet the wishes of the individuals living there, which can help to soften the often-fraught transition from street life to stability.
Guests have access to fresh air and daylight, a place to rest and think, space to store belongings and a key to their own front door. Best of all, it’s not ugly. You could easily mistake it for housing you might even consider living in.
This isn’t permanent supportive housing. It’s a steppingstone — a dignified place to get one’s bearings and stop the free fall.
Our first pilot project will be a shelter for senior women. We are working with Hope of the Valley and the city to locate land in Sylmar, a council district that has been asking for a shelter for years.
Homes for Hope has the potential to provide a cheaper and more intimate alternative to the shelters of skid row. It allows reluctant neighborhoods to do their share without bearing the weight of a permanent shelter. Keeping these communities small allows us to conform to zoning codes without the need for controversial variances.
My brother didn’t have the luxury of waiting two to five years to get off the streets. There are thousands like him.
Los Angeles finally has the money to tackle homelessness. We can’t afford to wring our hands anymore. We can’t afford to be NIMBYs while people suffer.
Architects are willing to do our part. Will you help us?
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