Long before the pandemic hit Los Angeles, homelessness was widely regarded as one of the city’s most urgent problems—an ugly fact of life in one of the world’s wealthiest cities. As home prices and rents ballooned in the past decade, more and more people had to trade the roof over their heads for a friend’s couch, a car packed with all their belongings, or a tent on a hot, dusty sidewalk. COVID-19 has only exacerbated this crisis. According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, more than 66,000 homeless people are now living on the streets of L.A. County. As unemployment spikes and pandemic relief funds dwindle, the number of people facing foreclosure or eviction is expected to double.
Everyone agrees that the city needs more housing for low-income and homeless Angelenos. But steep construction costs, insufficient housing subsidies, and time-consuming regulations have hampered efforts to meet the demand.
Even some proponents of affordable housing balk at the prospect of hosting the homeless in their backyards. Critics complain that such projects threaten the character of their neighborhoods and increase congestion. Others worry about rising crime rates and plummeting property values. But what if the design of affordable housing could address these objections? Is it possible for smart architects to short-circuit community opposition?
Dana Cuff, a UCLA professor of architecture and urban design, thinks so. In 2017, she increased housing density in L.A. by coauthoring a state law that made it easier for people to build accessory dwelling units (ADUs)—aka granny flats—in the backyards of single-family lots. “We need to change the general—and misplaced—prejudice against affordable housing with housing that is smaller, targeted, and well-designed, and fits within the community,” she says. “We need to make more neighborhoods for more neighbors.”
Over the past year, Los Angeles invited 13 of the city’s top architectural firms to leverage their design expertise to come up with innovative concepts for affordable or permanent supportive housing. Their ideas, which include maxxing out the number of ADUs on a lot and devising mobile dwellings that fold out of a suitcase, range from the eminently doable to the futuristically far-out. The concepts highlighted here make clear that building housing for everyone in L.A. who needs it is going to require out-the-box thinking; mind-boggling amounts of money, land, and labor; and major political muscle. Can Los Angeles summon the will to finally solve its long-festering housing crisis? As the ranks of the homeless continue to grow, a better question might be: can it afford not to?
Made in the Shade
The big idea: Sustainable materials such as cork, linoleum, and recycled carpet and tile would decorate compact residences topped by slanted roofs, while shade awnings over buildings and garden areas would harness Southern California’s temperate climate for more-energy-efficient, less-costly housing.
Key features: Each small unit would contain a sleeping loft, a built-in dining
table and shelves, and a kitchen and a bathroom. A sofa bed would transform the living area into an extra bedroom. Units would be prefabricated, then assembled on-site to cut construction waste and time.
How it would work: Ceiling fans and plenty of windows would provide natural ventilation, minimizing the need for air conditioning. A transparent roof on upper units would reduce dependence on artificial lighting. Low-flow fixtures and native landscaping would capture rainwater and lower water use.
The upside: “This concept’s emphasis on indoor-outdoor living makes it ideally suited to coping with future pandemics,” says architect Roger Sherman. “It also solves the problem of loneliness—shifting the preponderance of living spaces from the units to oasis-like, communal ‘porches’ protected from
The big idea: Inspired by the pinwheel floor plan of the landmark Schindler House in West Hollywood (designed in 1922 by architect Rudolph Schindler as an experiment in communal living), the design of this mid-rise building would allow residents to cross paths more frequently and socialize more easily during progressive dinners and studio crawls. The ground floor of the building would house a communal kitchen and a space for theater, music, and dance performances as well as storage areas for bicycles and shared electric vehicles.
Key features: The layout and orientation of units on each level would be determined by chance, a reference to the work of composer John Cage, a one-time Schindler House resident. Exterior staircases that double as diagonal structural supports would also be randomly placed, giving the facade an irregular appearance. Besides making it easy to walk throughout the building, the staircases would blur the boundary between public and private spaces.
The upside: “This concept allows for flexibility,” says architect Frank Escher. “This doesn’t mean you have to be able to reconfigure space; it means you can use a space for a variety of purposes. Each space could be used either communally or as private space.”
One for the Road
The big idea: Nomadic types would live in mobile dwellings that produce renewable energy, store water, and incorporate a toilet and a sink, allowing them to own their homes even if they don’t own any land.
How it would work: The wheeled “suitcase house” could be towed and left anywhere it could be legally parked. The self-contained living/sleeping space would have
a foldout platform inside a bubble-like enclosure. The “expandable mobility house,” an autonomous vehicle half the size of the average car, would employ add-on modules to function simultaneously as home, office, and transportation. The “mobility high-rise house” would allow the expandable mobility house to plug into a high-rise hive with shared benefits such as laundry rooms, a pool, a gym, and great views.
The upside: “A mobile dwelling meshes nicely with the transient nature of L.A.” says architect Joey Shimoda. “It’s a progressive idea to think that one’s home is always exactly where you are. One day it’s the beach; the next day it’s downtown. If we believe the gig economy will be the prevalent economy, then this offers great opportunity. This concept gives everyone the freedom to change living locations without the limitations of time and money.”
Not for Profit
The big idea: A nonprofit community land trust would acquire vacant and underused city-owned land, maintenance yards, and foreclosed properties at below-market value in exchange for developing and maintaining that land for the sole purpose of affordable housing in perpetuity.
How it would work: The housing would be new buildings or existing industrial or commercial structures that have been adapted for residential use. A combination of live-work; co-housing; and one-, two-, and three-bedroom units would allow residents to move within a development, depending on their budget and changing needs. Houses and apartments would be owned or rented, but the land itself would be leased from the trust, ensuring that housing costs remain affordable rather than subject to steep market-driven increases passed on to the occupants.
Key features: Gardens, urban-farm plots, civic-gathering space, and bicycle parking would nurture a shared sense of wellness.
The upside: “These developments are community-driven by nature, and many Angelenos would likely be drawn to this grassroots, highly democratic model of living,” says architect Bob Hale. “It’s a model based on an economic foundation that discourages the gentrification that displaces residents, and it can be successful at multiple scales and with a wide array of socioeconomic communities, making it deployable anywhere in L.A.”
The big idea: Housing would be constructed in abandoned or overlooked areas after regulatory changes make that possible. Targeted locations would be spaces along railway tracks, waterways, urban transit centers, and defunct manufacturing facilities, as well as aboard decommissioned cruise ships.
How it would work: Stretches of railroad feature long parcels of land conducive to housing that would feature ramped roofs doubling as elevated pedestrian walkways. Bridge-like buildings would connect neighborhoods on opposite sides of the L.A. River or Ballona Creek, making use of space over the water. Units in towers built in wasted airspace above light-rail and rapid-transit hubs would reduce the need to drive. Factories and warehouses in industrial areas plus old cruise ships docked at the coast would be revamped as housing with private and public amenities.
The upside: “Each aspect of our proposal focuses on cultivating opportunities for connection and creating iconic public destinations,” says associate/project manager Ben Kalenik. “These communities bring something new and exciting to the urban fabric that will be a source of pride—not just for the occupants, but for the whole city.”
The big idea: By combining two lots currently zoned to allow two and a half units each, this concept would produce a single structure for up to five integrated households.
How it would work: The project would be laid out with multiple units along the perimeter of the adjacent lots’ four sides. Studios and one-, two-, and three-bedroom units—plus some parking—would fit under one continuous roof. While a central courtyard would promote interaction among the tenants, an opening along the street would encourage residents to engage with the larger neighborhood.
Key features: To minimize the structure’s overall scale, the shared roof would slope downward on all four sides of the building so it matches the height of surrounding residences. Different widths of metal cladding on the facade would help differentiate the units visually.
The upside: “This proposal is a modern take on L.A.’s traditional and much-loved courtyard apartments,” says architect Daniel Monti. “We’re imagining a familiar typology in a way that increases density but still builds community.”
Rooms for More
The big idea: This concept includes two building schemes that would maximize the number of housing units allowed on one single-family lot under current zoning.
How it would work: . Where an existing house and accessory dwelling unit (ADU) already exist, the “double-double” would add a separate bedroom suite to each to transform two households into four households. The “sleeping coach” option would consist of a house with a shared kitchen, living room, and front deck, plus six bedroom suites off a central corridor that allow residents to come and go as they please.
Key feature: A fleet of communal cars would be stack-parked in a driveway that runs the length of the lot, sharply decreasing the space needed for parking. Residents would simply hop into the first car in line.
The upside: “In the ‘double-double,’” says architect Alice Fung, “having rentable bedroom suites in both the house and the ADU accommodates intergenerational and diverse households, potentially leading to healthier communities.” Adds architect Michael Blatt, “As in a traditional British coach train, the ‘sleeping coach’ allows autonomy as well as community when desired.”
The big idea:
Rows of single-family homes or duplexes would be erected in the middle of residential streets. The new homes would be elevated so traffic could flow underneath them.
How it would work: Two-way streets would be narrowed to a single lane of one-way traffic, freeing up space to build new homes arranged end to end. Underpasses at street level would preserve driveway access for residents of existing single-family homes. To ease parking problems, the entire street could be excavated to create subterranean parking.
Key features: Each unit would be built with a private outdoor deck, and its scale and design would reflect the same character and geometry as the houses in the neighborhood. A lush public greenspace in the middle of every block would be open to all residents.
The upside: “Until the day comes that Angelenos see the rights of those who want to live here but can’t afford it as equal to their own rights as property owners, the status quo will be maintained,” says architect Edward Ogosta. “Our design is intended to shine a light on solutions technically within reach that are challenged only by fear of change.”
Shrink to Fit
The big idea: Unlike the massive multifamily developments of the past, these modestly sized buildings would vary in height and number of units, depending on the neighborhood and whether the occupants are low-income or homeless. The structures would be placed on reverse corner lots—that is, along alleys at the end of residential blocks adjacent to commercial zones.
How it would work: A change in zoning would encourage a new type of inexpensive unit called the micro-apartment and measuring roughly 20 feet wide by 30 feet deep. Each unit would be prefabricated with a vestibule, a bathroom, a kitchenette, a convertible bed/seating/storage area, and a private balcony. Several would be stacked on top of a ground floor composed of DIY services, storage, or parking.
The upside: “In Los Angeles almost any large-scale development seems to mobilize mass opposition regardless of the type or benefit,” says architect Michael Ferguson. “This concept deliberately seeks a modest alteration to the single-family residential lot in hopes of finding a small but scalable solution to providing housing for all while maintaining the character of existing neighborhoods.”
Unlocking the Land
The big idea: By opening roughly 14,000 parcels in L.A. County owned by public agencies to private development, this approach would ensure that much-needed housing would not be concentrated in one location but, rather, spread throughout the city. Building on previously undeveloped land would also add thousands of units without intruding on or fundamentally changing existing residential neighborhoods.
How it would work: Housing would be built on freeway interchanges, abandoned transportation hubs, and unbuilt hillsides that were previously considered too difficult to access. Other possible locations include alleys and rights-of-way along streets, freeways, and rivers as well as land repossessed for nonpayment of taxes or left over from eminent-domain efforts.
The upside: “Given the uniformity and field-like condition of the locations of these public properties,” says architect Warren Techentin, “affordable housing could be built evenly across every part of this city and people would be more likely to be able to stay in their communities.”
The big idea: Homeowners would be incentivized to build accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in their backyards to house more people in residential areas. This would enhance existing alley-revitalization programs, making it possible to turn underused alleys into community assets such as pedestrian passageways and recreational and green spaces. Single-story studio units of about 500 square feet would be designed for the elderly and the disabled; two-story units of about 650 square feet, with kitchen/bath/living space downstairs and a sleeping loft upstairs, could accommodate families.
How it would work: While an L.A. County bond program would pay for the construction of the ADUs, homeowners would receive monthly rent through an expansion of a federal Housing and Urban Development housing-choice voucher system. After a fixed amount of time, the ADUs would become the property of the homeowners.
Key features: Units would be prefabricated at a factory, then flat-packed and transported to the site, where they could be customized according to the demographic and lifestyle of occupants as diverse as senior citizens, single mothers, couples, and college students.
The upside: “In terms of social policy, the concept decentralizes homeless shelters and support functions, thereby offering a more humane way to integrate the homeless into the community,” says architect David Thompson. “It also offers financial incentives for homeowners who participate, and it looks at homelessness from a holistic perspective, combining existing programs to provide a more cost-effective way to address the issue.”
The big idea: Taking advantage of the land already set aside for the Expo line, more than 4,400 apartments in three- and four-story buildings would be constructed directly over the railway that stretches 14 miles between downtown and Santa Monica.
How it would work: Once air rights have been secured, modular units that straddle the width of the tracks would be put together in phases to avoid disrupting train service.
Key features: Besides providing easy access to light-rail transportation, the project would include stairways leading to rooftops designed with convenient outdoor theaters, yoga studios, gardens, and swimming pools.
The upside: “Similar strategies have been executed successfully in other countries, albeit at smaller scales,” says architect Valery Augustin. “This proposal is deliberately ambitious in scale and breadth because affordable housing is the definitive challenge facing Los Angeles.”
The big idea: The prefab-housing manufacturer HomCube would build self-contained housing modules that could be laid out along the perimeter of a development so that light and outdoor space could be shared at the center of the project. The apartments would sit above office and commercial spaces.
How it would work: Perforated metal screens wrapped around individual units would provide privacy and form a dynamic facade of shifting shadows. Each unit would also have a separate un-air-conditioned foyer entrance to give residents added security, wide views out toward the neighborhood, and personal exterior space for enjoying the region’s mild climate.
Key features: Lower floors would offer air-conditioned spaces for tenant services such as laundry facilities or recreation areas. The street level would be devoted to business tenants or, possibly, a supportive housing program.
The upside: “Our approach combines the speed and efficiency of modular construction with a tailor-made outer layer that is site specific,” says architect Monika Haefelfinger. “We believe our fellow Angelenos would embrace this solution because it can help alleviate the severe housing shortage quickly and easily accommodate other programmatic elements.”
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