Architects are part of the solution to Los Angeles’ homelessness crisis

Photo credit: Myles Kramer.

By Steve Cimino

The Skid Row neighborhood in downtown Los Angeles is perhaps the best-known homeless district in the country, the city’s social services and beautiful weather having made it a destination for the disenfranchised. But the number of homeless within the city and county continues to multiply, pushing those services to their limits and demanding options beyond what’s currently offered.

Since Mayor Eric Garcetti took office, in 2013, the City of Los Angeles has vocally pursued several key initiatives that touch the design realm: improving health, walkability, and public transit, and eliminating homelessness. And with the Olympics arriving in 2028, the city has acquired a deadline of sorts to resolve these concerns before the world’s eyes turn to La La Land.

“Everyone is aligning to try to address homelessness with money, land, and strategy,” says Mark Vallianatos, policy director for Abundant Housing LA and co-founder of urban policy think tank LAplus. “The challenges that remain are, ‘Where do you build it?’ and ‘Can you build it quicker?’”

One of their allies in this regard—pushing not only for more homes but good homes as well—is the Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA|LA). Several architects and Will Wright, Hon. AIA|LA, the chapter’s director of government and public affairs, serve on the Design For Dignity task force, an AIA|LA–led initiative to develop and prioritize a list of homelessness and housing policy “calls to action,” and establish a roadmap to implement recommendations.

“It’s tough to get permission to do things here,” Vallianatos says. “The city used to embrace all sorts of projects at different scales; now you can’t embark on anything that moves the needle without tens of millions of dollars in investment. How do we make the rules simpler, encourage experimentation, let the city grow, and give designers more opportunities to try new things?”

Homeless veteran Kendrick Bailey keeps cool inside his tent on a street corner near Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. After dropping some 30 percent from 2015 to 2016, the population of homeless veterans living on Los Angeles streets increased in the official 2017 count to 4,828 from 3,071 the year before. FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images.

Los Angeles is placing a new focus on infrastructure and public buildings, from a master plan for a redesigned Union Station to an expansion of its oft-maligned subway system. Yet the issues of housing and homelessness are two that the city has yet to solve, despite efforts from organizations like the Skid Row Housing Trust and design techniques from firms like Michael Maltzan Architecture and Brooks + Scarpa. Their work was documented in Community By Design: Skid Row Housing Trust, grand prize winner in AIA’s 2017 I Look Up Film Challenge.

“We might have over 50,000 homeless,” Wright says, “but we also have more empty bedrooms than that. It’s not that we don’t have the capacity to house everyone; we have a microculture that doesn’t connect people as well as it should.”

Large-scale government programs are already underway. Seventy-six percent of Los Angeles voters approved a 2016 measure that authorized $1.2 billion in bonds for the construction of 10,000 units for the homeless, and the county unanimously voted to direct millions from its Measure H sales tax increase into homelessness prevention, crisis housing, and bridge housing. But more money and well-intentioned speeches from politicians don’t always lead to proportional returns. These programs can’t help all of those in need of immediate shelter, or provide opportunities for the architects who want to lend their design prowess to the cause.

Caroline Francis places a platter of food for her fellow homeless neighbor on the street near the Los Angeles Mission, hosting its annual Christmas meal for the homeless in Los Angeles, site of one of the nation’s largest homeless populations. FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images.

Fortunately, architects like Jennifer Schab are finding other ways to contribute. A principal at Rios Clementi Hale Studios, she recently embarked on a small but meaningful project for Pete White, the founder of Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN), that illustrates how every little bit can help.

“I met Pete at one of Will Wright’s meetings,” she says, “and he called me afterward to ask if we could create a map for him. It would show the area of Skid Row superimposed with two different densities of toilets: one based on United Nations refugee standards and another one based on the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. When you make a grid based on those standards and overlay it on Skid Row, you’d see they need roughly 387 or 115 toilets, respectively. That’s compared to the nine overnight toilets that the 1,777 homeless in the area had access to at the time.

“I know Mayor Garcetti and the city have recently added more toilets,” she says, “which are necessary to combat the recent hepatitis outbreak in homeless communities. But that, at least in part, comes from Pete knowing the issue needed a visual element to make a real impact. And it’s exactly the kind of thing we’re so happy to do. We’re architects. We know how to draw, how to present information concisely. This is exactly the kind of service we want to provide.”

The homeless population continues to rise, and the strategies currently in play are not enough. Cities like Los Angeles need to take advantage of this chance to think outside the box and pursue solutions beyond what has worked on a smaller scale and in a bygone era, especially when it comes to design.

Learn more about working with an architect in your area, by contacting an AIA chapter near you.

A full version of this story can be found in the April 2018 issue of ARCHITECT Magazine and online here.