Good Design Is for Everyone: The Evolution of Low-Income Housing in L.A.

The phrases “public housing” or “low-income housing” do not generally conjure thoughts of architectural innovation. Instead, one may envision rows of faded pastel cubes surrounded by dead lawns and tall fences, or looming concrete towers gridded with small windows. Both schemes are typically weighted with a grim institutional air, appear to have been built as cheaply as possible, and often address only one problem, shelter, amid many others.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, as several recent housing developments in Los Angeles prove. Instead, they pose the question: What if low-income housing was perceived as leading the vanguard of innovative, responsive architecture?

Take the recently completed Star Apartments, located in the heart of downtown’s Skid Row. Commissioned by Skid Row Housing Trust, and designed by renowned L.A. architect Michael Maltzan, it provides permanent housing and social services to the formerly homeless. Star Apartments is also breathtaking architecture, consisting of a staggered row of four-story white blocks hovering over the existing ground level. Between these two levels is a large terrace, providing communal outdoor space away from the street. To save on cost and construction time, the 102 housing units within the blocks were prefabricated and lifted by crane on top of each other like blocks. Maltzan states that it’s the first multi-unit housing to use this method since the mid-20th century, a time when prefabrication was celebrated as a modern, mechanized solution to the housing problem.

Besides offering permanent subsidized housing, Star Apartments features an on-site wellness center, medical clinic, and community areas for socializing, making art, using computers, and exercising. As Theresa Hwang, Community Architect at the Trust notes, these additions to the residences represent a unique architectural investment in community-building activities. “It’s really pushing the typology of permanent supportive housing,” she says.

Star Apartments is Maltzan’s third design with the Trust for this population. His Rainbow (2006) and Carver (2009) apartments also offer spaces for socializing like courtyards and communal gardens and kitchens. It’s an especially urgent design element for a population that can feel extremely cut off from public life. Skid Row Housing Trust, a non-profit diversely funded by the city and state, federal tax credits, grants, and donations, is driven by the question: “How can the homeless become viewed as equal if their housing is not?” As to questions about spending more than the bare minimum on their projects, there’s an equation. Living in equal housing creates a sense of pride which in turn encourages permanence for the residents. As the Trust maintains, if the residents remain in stable housing, that means they’re at less risk of ending up with medical emergencies or being arrested and sent to prisons; it ultimately saves taxpayer money.

Besides Maltzan, the Trust has partnered with Koning Eizenberg Architects, Killefer Flamang, Perkins + Will, and other notable local firms. The results are an emerging landscape of strikingly designed buildings, responsive to the needs of their residents, and far more compelling, architecturally, than many of the indistinguishable condos rising throughout downtown.

In fact, these residences are creating a new design-trail, with requests to tour the buildings pouring in daily. “If our buildings become an ‘architectural playground’ that could be a positive thing,” says Hwang. “It helps break down borders between people.” It may also help to integrate this kind of housing into more affluent neighborhoods that often attempt to bar it.

Noting that most urban transformation often results in huge centralized projects like L.A. Live or The Grove, Maltzan points out the unique geographic dispersion of the Trust’s buildings, which are building up “a series of small points on the map over time. If you were start to draw lines between them and create an imaginary web, you realize that that also can have an enormous effect on the whole perception of the city.” He adds, “Frankly, I think that’s what the Trust is achieving. They’re changing the city one increment at a time, but it’s starting to become a very large and powerful influence.”

In addition to innovative architecture, the Trust’s design process itself is unique. Each architecture firm has meetings with staff, property managers, and current and future Trust residents to discuss the design plan and how it should be altered. “This way the aesthetics of the project are deeply linked to its functionality from the beginning,” says Hwang. Hiring architects willing to experiment, listen to the residents’ needs, and create uplifting designs the city can be proud of, is something the Trust (as well as similar organizations like Santa Monica’s Community Corporation and West Hollywood Community Housing Corp) is committed to.

As an ambition, though, such aims aren’t new to Southern California. Many of our celebrated architects of decades past, influenced by European modernism, were passionate about design as a means for social progression. (Even the iconic midcentury modern homes of the Case Study House Program were intended for affordable mass production.) Funding was frequently a challenge, but the changing political landscape had an even greater impact.

During the Depression, affordable housing was a nationwide concern; in 1940s Southern California that urgency overlapped with a need to house wartime factory workers and then returning veterans. Bolstered by federal financial support (Housing Act of 1937) and a continuing New Deal ethos, housing was considered a human right and discussed with a level of positive, even moral rhetoric that seems impossibly idealistic from today’s vantage. To wit, Franklin Roosevelt’s proposal for a second Bill of Rights, in 1944, included “the right of every family to a decent home.”

In the service of social progression, many architects of this era fused modernist design with the pastoral ideals of the Garden City movement to create quickly fabricated, affordable, and dignifying residential developments. Historian Don Parsons calls this design-for-the-masses “community modernism.” There was the architecturally and socially progressive Aliso Village, designed by Ralph Flewelling and Lloyd Wright (son of Frank Lloyd Wright). Opened in 1942 in Boyle Heights, Aliso was one of the first racially integrated housing projects in the nation. Its innovative masterplan offered protected green space away from the street, simple light-filled dwellings, a school and adjacent nursery school, and sheltered play areas for children. Pueblo del Rio (1941-42) was designed by a team of star architects, including Paul R. Williams, Richard Neutra, Gordon B. Kaufmann, and Wurdeman & Becket. It featured modern, sunny apartments with access to both private and communal outdoor spaces, and an average of one-and-a-half fruit trees per household.1 In Richard Neutra’s unrealized plans for Amity Village in Compton, he wanted the design to mimic living in a park instead of a city. Again intending for the site to offer enriching options beyond mere shelter, Neutra’s plan included mixed-use areas for businesses, a craft center, a nursery, school, and a community-meeting and recreation center.

With funding from the 1937 housing act, ten public housing projects were constructed in Los Angeles: Aliso Village, Avalon Gardens, Estrada Courts, Hacienda Village, Pico Gardens, Pueblo del Rio, Ramona Gardens, Rancho San Pedro, Rose Hill Courts, and William Mead Homes. In 1949, more funding was granted for the construction of Mar Vista Gardens, Nickerson Gardens, and San Fernando Gardens.3

However, this golden era was abruptly eclipsed. During the Cold War, Southern California emerged as a stronghold of McCarthyism. Private sector real estate boards, property owner leagues, and the politicians seeking their votes launched an outright war against public housing, which was portrayed as “part of a conspiratorial effort by well-placed communists […] to destroy traditional American values through a carefully calculated policy of racial and class struggle.”4 The local housing authority was demonized and compared to the Gestapo. This conflict was so incendiary that public housing became the primary issue during Los Angeles’s 1953 mayoral race, and the incumbent candidate who supported it was branded a communist and lost.5 The winner, Norris Poulson, instantly canceled the city’s public housing contract with the federal government.

One of the most infamous examples of this witch-hunt is the story of Chavez Ravine. Located where Dodger Stadium and its parking lots now sit, the low-income neighborhood had been declared a slum and the Housing Authority commissioned Robert Alexander and Richard Neutra to design housing for the residents. Their stately design for what he named Elysian Park Heights included a mix of low- and high-rise housing in a parklike setting laced with gardens and trees, and terraced garden apartments landscaped for privacy. However, the project was derailed by the political firestorm. When Housing Authority employees protested, they were subsequently dismissed, blacklisted, and sent to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.6

The last housing project constructed by the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles was in 1955. With major federal and state funding gone, the city turned to voucher programs and leasing. Lacking a commitment to existing building maintenance and accompanying social services, however, many communities declined. There have been examples of innovative low-income housing in specific areas, like Santa Monica, in the ensuing decades, but nothing has come close to the scope of the midcentury expansion.

While the context of the midcentury differs radically from today, and low-income housing is not the same as permanent supportive housing for the homeless –these eras are linked by the classic Modernist notion that good and uplifting design is for everyone.

“Los Angeles has always been one of the leading contexts for experimentation with modernism–in many different types of buildings but absolutely with housing,” says Maltzan. “I believe that this experimentation has now moved into multi-family housing in the 21st century as the city gets denser and denser. I see the projects we’re doing with the Skid Row Housing Trust as an extension of both that kind of experimental mindset and culture in Los Angeles, but also very much an extension of the Modernist project.”
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Trust. Los Angeles still has work to do in both addressing its growing homeless population (the second largest in the nation), and the need for affordable housing amidst rising density and gentrification. But perhaps what’s underway is paving a path toward an updated paradigm of “community modernism” for a new century.While the Trust’s focus is on Los Angeles, these trailblazing projects could ideally alter thinking about what the template and integration of affordable and supportive housing could look like on a global level. It’s common for cities to pursue fame for the headline-grabbing architecture of massive sports stadiums, skyscrapers, or radical cultural centers. What would it mean for Los Angeles to become known for a successful and sustainable network of beautiful housing projects for its most vulnerable citizens? At the very least, it would result in a unique form of civic pride–one that would stem from living in a more equitable, and thus more vibrant city. 


1See the Paul Williams website.

2Amity Compton was never realized. Due to the war, it became Channel Heights near the Los Angeles Harbor to house defense workers. Some of Neutra’s design elements remained, but much had to be altered. See Thomas Hines, “A Dream for Low-Cost Housing that Went Astray,” LA Times, June 21, 1992.

3See Dana Cuff’s The Provisional City (MIT Press, 2001).

4Quote by Thomas Sugrue, in Don Parson’s Making a Better World: Public Housing, the Red Scare, and the Direction of Modern Los Angeles (University of MInnesota Press, 2005) p. 188. Parson’s book provides a thorough study of the political landscape of this era.

5The unsuccessful mayoral candidate was Mayor Fletcher Bowron. See Eric Avila’s Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles(University of California Press, 2004), pgs. 38-40.

6For an introduction to this fascinating and complicated history, I recommend this video.

Published on KCET’s Artbound:
%d bloggers like this: