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Unleash the innovators: How architects are reshaping the fight against homelessness

The Los Angeles homelessness crisis has gotten significantly worse in recent years, exacerbated by economic hardship and the COVID-19 pandemic. With 41,290 unhoused people in the city, according to the 2020 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, timely, affordable solutions are necessary. As the search for effective ways to address the problem has gone on, one…
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sylvieturk

August 16, 2021

The Los Angeles homelessness crisis has gotten significantly worse in recent years, exacerbated by economic hardship and the COVID-19 pandemic. With 41,290 unhoused people in the city, according to the 2020 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, timely, affordable solutions are necessary.

As the search for effective ways to address the problem has gone on, one strategy feels particularly promising — The Low Rise: Housing Ideas for Los Angeles competition held by the office of Mayor Garcetti and chief design officer Christopher Hawthorne in 2020. Its purpose was to explore designs for missing “middle-housing” and build sustainable structures in geographically strategic locations.

Homelessness in Los Angeles has a long, complex history. Starting in the late 1960s, there was a push to slow population growth in the city. Policies began to heavily restrict the construction of low-rise, multi-family housing. The idea was simple: remove low-income housing options, and population growth would dwindle. This phenomenon was called downzoning.

Downzoning was incredibly effective at achieving its goal. Between 1970 and 2010, the housing capacity of the city was cut from 10 million to 4.3 million, according to the California Planning & Development Report.

According to the New York Times, L.A.’s chief design officer Christopher Hawthorne said more than 75% of residential land in the city of Los Angeles, or 400,000 parcels is zoned for single family housing. This has led to a dearth of multi-family housing, which Los Angeles desperately needs.

In addition to a severe lack of multi-family homes, there’s not enough available housing across the board in Los Angeles, as the county has the least homes per capita of any metropolitan area in the country. The trend is projected to get worse in the future, as Bloomberg finds permitting for new housing is moving at the slowest pace since the Great Recession, and job growth in Los Angeles is far outpacing new construction.

McKinsey’s November 2019 Affordable Housing in Los Angeles report found only 9% of the units built in Los Angeles in the past five years have been affordable to those earning less than the area’s median income. Concerningly, this trend means that 1 million households, or 70% of all households in the city, have to stretch financially to obtain a standard-size unit in their current neighborhood.

Clearly, more housing is necessary to manage the expanding population and address the tens of thousands of homeless individuals currently on the streets. The most practical solution is the very same low-rise, multi-family housing banned by the city in the 1970s and ‘80s as McKinsey finds one to two-story multifamily projects are the least expensive housing options to construct on a per-unit basis.

And that’s where the competition comes in. The city received 380 total submissions from around the world in four categories: Corners, Fourplex, Redistribution, and Subdivision. Each category was dedicated to a different potential space — street corner lots, current buildings such as John Lautner’s Chemosphere House, fourplexes, and subdivisions. All projects were designed to fit the space parameter of a 150 x 50 feet lot.

The winning proposals were announced in late June. Of the winners, roughly half are from California; the others from New York City, the UK, and Austin, Texas. The proposals focus on creating housing that’s not only multi-family, but multi-generational and accessible.

Kings Road House, or the Schindler House, was reimagined by the winners in the Redistribution category of the competition, which was intended to redesign existing architectural landmarks as sustainable housing. The proposal takes inspiration from the Four Japanese Classical Elements – Air, Water, Earth, Fire – to create an inclusive, flexible space that promotes community togetherness and gives individuals comfortable private areas. The proposal uses natural ventilation, recycled water, and uses California’s natural biodiversity to promote sustainable practices.

Hidden Gardens, the Fourplex winner, strikes a balance between indoor and outdoor spaces to create a building that feels like a series of gardens. The architects wanted to create a site where connections to nature and community are integrated into every part of the design. The proposal is carbon neutral and designated as a Zero Energy Community due to its strategic placement of sustainable structures, trellises, clerestory windows, deciduous planting, and renewable energy sources.

California Branch House, the winner of the Corners category, presents three types of structures and a corner community under three roofs. The proposal aligns with the Passive House Standard, a globally recognized standard in energy-efficient construction. The California Branch House expands on the mid century California Ranch style home, reimagining it to be flexible, affordable, and sustainable. The design features key elements of any living space, such as restrooms and a kitchen, but builds in room for the occupants to determine the direction of their home.

Green Alley Housing, the Subdivision winner, went above and beyond to create a network of community-building public spaces. It proposed transforming rarely used public alleys in Los Angeles into homes and community centers. The design addresses the need for flexible living/working spaces and builds in support for residents’ businesses. The architects also communicated with the residents of Garvanza — where the project would be built — in order to address their unique needs and create a sustainable, affordable site.

All four winners developed living spaces that significantly addressed existing problems in their target neighborhoods, and did so by communicating directly with the residents there. All of them are creative and extremely exciting in different ways. Unfortunately, scaling up any to house 40,000 people is challenging both in terms of time and money. These ideas are, however, important guides to creating livable spaces drawing from the principles of sustainable, community-driven architecture.

Following discussions with policymakers, developers, and the community, the most compelling aspects of the winning proposals will be incorporated into Los Angeles’ affordable-housing, zoning, and land use policies. And that could be the beginning of real change. Solving the problem of homelessness clearly requires innovative thinking, and competitions like Low Rise may hold the key.

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