Iwan Baan

Every night in Los Angeles, the streets of Skid Row overflow with the city’s homeless population, members of which stake out spots on the sidewalks to pitch their tents and line up for meals at the area’s many shelters and soup kitchens. This is the concentrated epicenter of the country’s capital of homelessness. More than 20,000 people live on the streets in L.A., and many end up on Skid Row.

Various groups, large and small, converge on this section of the city east of downtown to tend to the homeless and, for the last 25 years, the Skid Row Housing Trust has been one of the most prominent. Since its founding in 1989, the nonprofit housing developer has built, rehabbed, or taken control of 24 properties in the Skid Row area to provide more than 1,500 housing units for those with little or no income.

The Trust’s more recent projects are permanent supportive housing centers—a celebrated concept in the fight against homeless­ness that puts people in stable and permanent housing with on-site access to mental and medical services. These environments offer staff a place to address the root causes of peoples’ homelessness, and in turn help people get off of the streets for good.

High-quality architecture complements this goal. In its most recent projects, the Trust collaborated with prominent local firms to develop housing projects that go far beyond the barebones banality of typical affordable housing projects. The most ambitious of these projects were designed by Michael Maltzan Architecture. One of them, the New Carver Apartments, which opened in 2009, has a striking white circular saw design that has drawn praise from critics and residents alike. The newest project, the $20.5 million Star Apartments opening this summer, is even bolder, stacking 102 prefabricated modular units on top of an existing single-story concrete structure and sandwiching a 15,000-square-foot public space in between.

“It’s one of the most important milestones that we at the Skid Row Housing Trust have undertaken in our 23 years of existence,” says Mike Alvidrez, the Trust’s executive director. He credits Maltzan for the firm’s creativity and willingness to bring a more sophisticated design sensibility to an often-disregarded segment of housing development.

Michael Maltzan, FAIA, insists that supportive housing is exactly where better design is needed. “Architecture, in our minds as an office, should be accessible to everybody,” Maltzan says. “This group of projects is really about the city as a whole, about trying to transform the way that we build, the way that we think about community and housing in a city like Los Angeles.”

Maltzan’s firm and the Skid Row Housing Trust builds on the lessons learned in each project and pushes supportive housing even further with future project ideas. A key element of this evolution is the intermediary role played by Theresa Hwang, Assoc. AIA, who came to the Skid Row Housing Trust in 2009 as an Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellow. She worked closely with the Trust and with Maltzan’s firm on the Star Apartments, even spending a few days a week doing CAD drawings in Maltzan’s office during the design phase. Wearing two hats, Hwang helped cement the concept of public interest design into the project. She has also helped both sides hone the project by integrating findings from community input sessions with residents of other Trust projects that identified shortcomings of previous projects—from the location of laundry facilities to the size of closets.

“Moving forward, for every single project—not just the new development projects, even if it’s just a small community garden that we’re planning in an existing building—we are making sure that the residents are at the table making decisions alongside us,” Hwang says. Like Maltzan, Hwang sees significance beyond just how a high design standard affects the residents of these projects. She says it’s important to meet the needs of Skid Row’s homeless and formerly homeless while also contributing to the improvement of the neighborhood as a whole.

“We use public money to build our projects,” Hwang says. “Why not enhance the urban fabric while we’re at it?” And that seems to be the new mission of the Skid Row Housing Trust. While the homeless population is still its main constituency, the Trust is also intent on building projects that make an impact throughout the entire community. “It’s providing a progressive, tangible view of the way that a more sustainable city can look and operate in the future,” Maltzan says.