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05.27.2009
Better Living
As funding gets tight, supportive housing attracts creative architects

After several flush years, supportive housing for LA’s homeless faces an uncertain future. But that hasn’t stopped many architects from seeking such publicly funded projects to survive the economic downturn.

At the height of the economic boom in 2005 and 2006, a number of projects for homeless housing, often involving top architecture firms, secured funding. Michael Maltzan completed the Rainbow Apartments for Skid Row Housing Trust in downtown LA in 2006. He recently topped off another project, the New Carver Apartments, with 95 units of senior affordable and supportive housing arranged radially around a courtyard, and due to begin leasing in October. Killefer Flammang Architects Villas at Gower, a 70-unit permanent supportive housing project in Hollywood, should break ground in November. Koning Eizenberg is just completing the Abbey Apartments on Skid Row, while Pugh + Scarpa recently completed a 46-unit facility in Santa Monica called Step Up on Fifth. And Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects is collaborating with the Skid Row Housing Trust on an 82-unit site in downtown LA.

Despite this flurry, future funding is in jeopardy. If passed, proposition 1E, on the May 19 ballot, would let the state legislature redirect funds from 2004’s Mental Health Services Act—which provided $400 million in funds for supportive housing—back into state coffers. Furthermore, money from 2002’s Housing and Emergency Shelter Trust Fund Act, or Proposition 46, has been disbursed more slowly than in the past, forcing non-profit developers to look for alternate funding sources.

The failure of the state to approve a budget has also delayed bond issues for publicly funded projects. Just as seized-up credit markets hurt the larger economy, one frozen sector has consequences for every other, explained Molly Rysman, director of special projects at Skid Row Housing Trust.

 

An supportive housing proposal by Lorcan O'Herlihy ArchitectsA supportive housing proposal by Lorcan O'Herlihy Architects.
Courtesy Lorcan O'Herlihy Architects

The private sector is unlikely to make up the shortfall. As Tod Lipka, president and CEO of Step Up on Second, which provides housing for the homeless in Santa Monica, explained, “Giving hasn’t stopped, but people aren’t giving at the level they were before the recession.”

But despite the uncertain financial landscape, architects in Los Angeles continue to work closely with nonprofit developers on more affordable and supportive housing. In fact, with a relatively dire commercial market, more architects than ever are receptive to working with much tighter budgets in the public sector, said Lipka.

Nonprofit housing developers stress that they’re looking for architects with an innate sensitivity to the community they’re serving. “We want to create housing that doesn’t feel institutional,” said Rysman. Another criterion is speed. “There’s a certain degree of stop-and-go,” explained Dora Leong Gallo, CEO of A Community of Friends, an affordable housing developer. “Responsiveness is critical, especially for projects funded with tax credits. Delaying any part of the process can jeopardize a project.”

One architect who has transitioned from commercial projects to publicly funded work is Lorcan O’Herlihy, who maintains that lessons learned in the private sector can translate into supportive housing design. “We take programmatic criteria—incorporate green roofs, cable systems for irrigation, landscapes into urban areas—and try to be inventive within strict parameters,” he said.

Is there a silver lining to the budget crisis for affordable and supportive housing? Gallo thinks so, especially as president pro tempore of the California State Senate, Darrell Steinberg, plans to introduce a bill to provide a permanent revenue source for affordable housing. Gallo said the political environment may finally be ripe to pass such a bill: “One good thing that’s come out of [this financial crisis] is an understanding of the importance of having a place to call home.”

Marissa Gluck