Every night, an estimated 50,000 people sleep on the streets of Los Angeles–a figure that’s skyrocketed by 35% in the last year alone. The problem is so bad that the mayor has declared a state of emergency, and in November, L.A. voters approved a $1.2 billion bond to build 10,000 apartment units over the next decade for the chronically homeless. But it takes two to five years to build this kind of permanent housing because of the city’s complex building code and zoning rules–and the city needs a fix right now.
“In L.A., we’ve had a homelessness issue for decades, but it used to be very concentrated in Skid Row,” says Anne Dobson, director of philanthropy and communications at the Skid Row Housing Trust, a nonprofit which has been building housing for the homeless in the neighborhood for nearly 30 years. “It was easy for L.A. county residents to ignore the problem. That’s changed in the last three to four years, where suddenly you see encampments under every overpass, by every park. It’s no longer a situation that can be ignored.”
To speed up the plodding process of building housing, the Homes for Hope project is rewriting the manual. Instead of working against L.A.’s bureaucracy, it’s working with it, designing around zoning rules and building code to create an effective stop-gap for the homelessness crisis. The project has involved city planners throughout the entire design process, along with architects, community activists, individuals who’ve experienced homelessness, and folks from the nonprofit world who’ve acted as a real client for the design team.
The result is a prototype for a modular, portable, single unit-occupancy housing unit that can be built quickly and cheaply–something that has a real shot at mitigating the flood of homelessness that has swept the city. Like an architectural stepping stone into a more permanent home, it’s designed to pull L.A.’s homeless off the street as quickly as possible, providing short-term assistance in the form of a private, secure place to call one’s own.
Homes for Hope isn’t an architecture firm or nonprofit, though. It’s the final project of a class at University of Southern California called the Homeless Studio. Taught by the USC instructors Sofia Borges and R. Scott Mitchell and composed of 11 fourth-year architecture students, the studio involved experts at Skid Row Housing Trust and the city of Los Angeles planning department, as well as anti-homelessness activists. And while the course started out the way most do–with groups of students designing their own prototypes–the students had converged around a single design by the middle of the semester, with every participant working towards the same idea. The full prototype was finished by the end of the year.
The studio was unusual in other ways, as well; it was funded by Madworkshop, a design-oriented nonprofit that focuses on supporting innovative student projects, many of which come out of USC (the founders are alums). The impetus for the project was the nonprofit’s co-founder Mary Martin’s concern for the crisis and desire to use design to help. “We didn’t want anything we did here to be speculative. Especially in architecture school that’s a very common thing,” says Borges, who is also the director of Madworkshop. “We thought, this topic is too important and urgent and real, so why wouldn’t we develop a real response?”
The external funding gave the students the resources to build rather than just render–a luxury not often afforded architecture students. For fourth-year student Jeremy Carman, this opportunity to actually build something was unparalleled throughout his schooling; he says he chose to take Homeless Studio over the two other studios offered that semester, one on parametric design and another on “pretty boxes” (whatever that meant).
“In education, it’s always that you don’t want to kill the dream with reality,” says David Martin, an architect who co-founded Madworkshop with Mary Martin. “You want the creative minds to say, ‘what if this,’ ‘what if that,’ but if you can get that creative energy and introduce reality into the innovation, some really neat things happen.”
The final design looks like a cross between a tiny house and a dorm room. It’s also really pretty from afar, an aspect of the design that’s not to be taken lightly as housing for the homeless often needs the local community’s support. The bright, inviting space looks like the kind of place that anyone would want to hang out. “It looks comfortable, like you want to go in and take a nap,” Mitchell says. Each unit is suspended about two feet above the dirt so that occupants don’t feel like they’re sleeping on the ground, with the added benefit of allowing the design to adapt to uneven ground. The interior is relatively spacious, measuring about 92 square feet, and one wall is convex to extend beyond the foundation, maximizing interior space and storage. There’s enough room for a bed, desk, chair, and shelves. Two windows let in plenty of natural light and air.
The design isn’t just optimized to be comfortable for inhabitants or eye candy for neighbors. It’s modular, meaning that the units can be repurposed and combined into bathroom units, a dining area, and case-worker offices. It’s portable–three units will fit on the back of an 18-wheeler–and can be manufactured off-site. And set up is incredibly easy: A two-story, 30-bed complex, complete with an inner courtyard for community space, can be built in just two weeks.
But the design’s real brilliance isn’t immediately obvious unless you have an intimate knowledge of the city’s building code.
According to Mitchell, Los Angeles is the hardest place to build in the country. The building and zoning codes are byzantine, mostly because of regulations meant to protect buildings against California’s propensity for major earthquakes and devastating wildfires. Development projects can take years to get all the required permits before starting construction.
Building permanent supportive housing often takes two to three years, but that kind of timeline doesn’t work for the city’s homelessness crisis. The Homes for Hope team decided to mold their design to bureaucracy in an effort to get permits approved as quickly as possible. To do this, they involved officials from the city throughout the design process, relying on their knowledge to inform the shape, size, and details of the prototype’s design.
The first step was to cap a single community at 30 beds. This means that developers don’t need a conditional use permit, which requires a community hearing in order to move forward with development. This process can stall building for months, or even years–it’s one of the factors that slows down the building of permanent supportive housing for the homeless.
Zoning is another area where housing for the homeless runs into issues. Historically, zoning has been used to corral individuals experiencing homelessness in the Skid Row neighborhood in downtown L.A., a phenomenon with century-old roots. More than 100 years ago, Skid Row was the end of the train line coming out West. Migrant laborers looking for work would settle there, and hotels with single-room occupancy units were built for them. With these hotels came bars and brothels–which gave the neighborhood a seedy reputation–as well as religious missions that provided social services. After World War II and Vietnam, veterans often settled in the area because of the affordable housing and mission-based services. By the 1960s and ’70s, the city zoned the neighborhood as residential to contain the low-income and homeless people who lived there, while the surrounding areas were zoned for industrial and commercial use. Buildings that fell into disrepair were demolished, causing a dearth of affordable housing and forcing people into the streets.
While zoning has been used to contain homelessness, it’s also been used to limit where shelters can exist. In Los Angeles, there are only a few places where a shelter can open by right, due to a zoning bill passed in the ’90s. But Homes for Hope was designed to avoid this regulation because it isn’t technically a shelter–it falls under the category of “congregant housing,” meaning that units are fabricated and manufactured offsite and then installed as temporary housing. That means this kind of facility isn’t limited to land that’s been zoned specifically for homeless shelters, dramatically opening up the possibilities for where these communities could be set up. If there’s an empty plot of land that’s been zoned for manufacturing or for residential, a Homes for Hope settlement can be built there.
And because the units were designed to be manufactured off-site and set up in only two weeks, they could also occupy land temporarily. For instance, land often sits unused as developers go through the intensive permitting process, which can last for two years. A Homes for Hope facility could find a (temporary) home on such sites. Have a giant parking lot for your church or office that’s rarely used? An empty plot of land owned by the city? A Homes for Hope facility could be set up there, as well.
Ken Craft, CEO of the nonprofit organization Hope of the Valley, has been building facilities for the homeless for more than a decade–and says he had never heard about the congregant housing provision of the building code before Homes for Hope. “I thought, hey, how come nobody told me about that before,” Craft says. “Because the city was involved, that’s how they know about it. They worked with them to find a creative solution that would meet existing planning code and zoning.”
Homes for Hope found its de facto client in Craft, who has years of on-the-ground expertise and the infrastructure in place to actually make the project a reality. With eight facilities, including a $4.3-million recuperative care shelter that opened in 2016, his Hope of the Valley rescue mission has helped the homeless in the San Fernando Valley for the past seven years. He gave the student-designers a real-life end goal: Craft wants to build the first Homes for Hope facility, which will be specifically geared toward helping homeless women over the age of 55.
Craft’s expertise guided the design process from the beginning. He believed each unit should be discrete, giving residents the luxury of privacy. He believed each should be raised off the ground in order to ensure residents wouldn’t feel like they were sleeping on the ground. And he says the final prototype’s modern feel is necessary to garner community support. “Anybody that would drive by and look at it would not say, ‘oh that’s homeless housing,'” Craft says. “It looks contemporary. Anyone would be honored and thrilled to live there.”
But Craft envisions a far greater implementation of Homes for Hope than just the one planned for Hope of the Valley, for which he is currently fundraising. He wants to see Homes for Hope projects opening in each of the eight service planning areas–large geographic chunks of land used for planning purposes–in Los Angeles County.
That kind of scale would add hundreds of beds, and once you get more people on board, manufacturing is cheaper, thanks to economies of scale. Right now, each pod is estimated to cost $25,000 for materials, furnishings, mechanical systems, and labor. Craft estimates that a full 30-bed development will cost just under $1 million–cheap, considering that the city is investing $1.2 billion to build 10,000 apartments, a rate of $120,000 per unit.
Still, Homes for Hope isn’t a permanent fix to the problem–by nature, the design is temporary.
Over the last 10 years, the federal government and the state of California have shifted to a “housing first” policy, moving funding away from shelters and funneling it toward what’s called “permanent supportive housing”–that’s the kind of housing the $1.2 billion bond will be building. The idea is that getting people off the street and into permanent housing is a higher priority than investing in shelters, which don’t always give homeless individuals the resources to move out of the system.
“What we’ve finally realized is that a mission-type of shelter, while it provides a single night of shelter, it’s a band-aid,” says Anne Dobson, director of philanthropy and communications at the Skid Row Housing Trust. “You’re a homeless person, you line up, you spend half your day waiting to get access to a bed. You do the same next day. It kinda feels like purgatory. You’re just waiting.”
But as the money moves away from shelters, there are fewer beds available on a night-by-night basis, forcing more people out onto the streets. Dobson says that this policy shift–combined with L.A.’s extremely low vacancy rate of 2%, stagnant earnings and rising housing costs, and gentrification forcing people from their homes–have all contributed to the 35% increase in homelessness in L.A. county over the past year.
Dobson believes that the Homes for Hope project lies in a meaningful and impactful middle ground between the shelter and the permanent home, enabling the same kind of housing-first model to take place in a more temporary situation. “What I love about it is it’s almost genius in its temporariness,” Dobson says. “They can be set up as they’re needed, and then disassembled and set up elsewhere.”
According to Rosanne Haggerty, the CEO of the nonprofit Community Solutions who’s developed housing solutions for the homeless for decades, a variety of housing alternatives is key to transitioning people out of homelessness in a more sustainable way. “If you have a wider range of housing options that can be embedded in a coherent system, that’s the magic,” she says.
By taking into account the experiences of homeless and formerly homeless individuals, by talking to the city planners and designing around little known but impactful areas of the building code, and by speaking with activists and homelessness experts, the Homes for Hope team has managed to create an elegant, informed solution to a serious problem.
“I’m not saying this is the panacea, but this is a solution that will work and it could be implemented quickly and at much lower cost,” Craft says. “If it is implemented on a grander scale, it could put a huge dent in reducing homelessness in Los Angeles.”