The Design Solution for Homelessness

The glittering skyline of downtown Los Angeles is bright and close from the roof of the Star apartment building in L.A.’s Skid Row. “We can see them, and they can see us,” says Mike Alvidrez, the executive director of Skid Row Housing Trust, the developer of the sleek Star, an uncommonly beautiful respite for formerly homeless Angelenos.

He was referring to the clear line of sight between the building and its neighbors but also to the striking building’s own visibility. The 10-month-old Star Apartments — home to 100 individuals struggling to rebound from lives on the street — is visually arresting, a bright white set of staggered towers hovering over an open terrace.

Until now, Skid Row’s mostly low-rise buildings didn’t even appear in the skyline — out of sight, out of mind. Now, Alvidrez hopes, perhaps the homeless will be seen.

A few blocks’ distance shouldn’t render a place invisible, but for generations in Los Angeles it has. Skid Row has one of the highest concentrations of homeless people in the nation. Demographers estimate there are 5,000 to 11,000 destitute individuals living in a 50-block radius just south of the crowded bars and hip restaurants of downtown, pushing shopping carts down trash-strewn streets and when it gets dark, passing out on the ground. Most Angelenos have no reason to visit the area or consider the people living there.

The Trust has a plan to change that. Unlike all the plans that came before, it relies on something that this culture capital already knows how to do well — aesthetics. Its portfolio of edgy, striking buildings has raised the design profile of Los Angeles and reframed the conversation about how to build affordable housing in a place where income inequality ranks among the highest in the nation.

In the book The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton notes that beautiful architecture has none of the “unambiguous advantages of a vaccine or a bowl of rice.” Alvidrez’s organization seeks to complicate that notion. At the heart of the non-profit’s work is the question, posed to me by more than one staff member: “How can the homeless be viewed as equal if their housing is not?”

The model has found its apex, so far, in the stunning, modern Star Apartments, which opened last November. The Star includes a medical clinic, onsite counselors, a wellness center, and 15,000 square feet of community space, all designed by the internationally renowned architect Michael Maltzan — the same Michael Maltzan behind numerous high-profile civic projects, including the redevelopment of Governors Island in New York, the master plan for the Minneapolis riverfront and the $105 million One Santa Fe development in downtown L.A.

In a conversation last spring, he described his work with Skid Row Housing Trust as “part of thinking about how to continually evolve the model forward of housing in the city.”

“What I’ve come to believe,” he said of the Trust’s buildings, “is that such projects can represent how to be a real participant in the overall future of a city, and certainly of Los Angeles.”

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