Affordable housing in the United States echoes a continuously changing ideology of the most effective, safe, and desirable way to house the poorest and most marginalized people of our society. In the 1960s, the idea was that affordable housing had to first and foremost accommodate immense numbers of people. Subsequent massive projects such as Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis and Cabrini-Green in Chicago were constructed. It was later realized that such poorly designed and enormous publicly run housing projects led to widespread crime and danger. During the next phase, affordable housing was built on a much smaller scale, managed by private developers, and not segregated from more well-off neighborhoods. While this type of lower density housing harbors a much more hospitable environment, it cannot accommodate the growing number of poor Americans.
The most recent question surrounding affordable housing is how to construct quality, well-managed, safe, publically funded housing for the poor in the mass quantities that are needed to make a dent in homelessness.
The Skid Row Housing Trust (SRHT), based in Downtown Los Angeles, has attempted to tackle this question. Skid Row is an area in downtown Los Angeles that contains the highest concentration of homeless people in the United States. Streets are lined with cardboard, shopping carts, tents, and belongings. SRHT strives to assist the 3,000-6,000 people living on these streets by constructing affordable and desirable housing. The Star Apartments, the first pre-fabricated affordable housing complex, are an effort to construct a larger scale, well-designed project at minimal cost and construction time. The Star Apartments will cost $20.5 million and will consist of 102 units built in a factory and then stacked on site in just over a month. According to the Los Angeles Times, the project, designed by renowned architect Michael Maltzan, will include basketball courts, art centers, community gardens and green space. Star Apartments will serve the entire Skid Row community through services and public spaces. Residents will pay 30% of their income and will not be mandated to attend any counseling or social services. The Skid Row Housing Trust advocates for the so-called “housing first” model, which argues that the most effective way to deal with homelessness is to provide sustainable housing as quickly as possible, regardless of the level of stability of the resident.
Due to this unconventional model, Star Apartments have been the subject of controversy. Residents of the Star Apartments do not have to prove that they are on “the right path,” because “housing first” prescribes that once homeless people have housing, improvement and stability will follow. Opponents, such as conservative radio talk show host John Carlson, call such projects “bunks for drunks” and argue that in order to make a real difference in homelessness, residents need to be mandated to stop “risky behavior” and take proactive steps to better their life.
The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) conducted a study to evaluate the effectiveness of “housing first” programs in reducing chronic homelessness and health care costs. Costs of individuals living in housing first programs were compared with those on the waitlist for the same type of housing but who were still living on the streets. Including housing expenses, public service costs decreased from $4066 to $2449 per person per month after a twelve-month period. This study thus demonstrates that it is actually cheaper to provide subsidized permanent housing for the chronic homeless than to pay for public health and safety services. Give the homeless homes, and the reduction of drug use is secondary to the numerous benefits that come with safe, sanitary, and sustainable shelter.
Critics of the Star Apartments might also take issue with the relatively low capacity of the project. However, regardless of its size, this well-designed building has the potential to completely change an entire community. A mixed-use housing project provides the space for people of the whole neighborhood to collaborate and build relationships. While it may house fewer people than a Cabrini-Green or a Pruitt-Igoe, it has the potential to positively affect the lives of many more.
In addition, others might claim that though the project will attempt to nurture a safe environment, it is still located on 6th and Maple; residents will still live in the heart of Skid Row and it will be nearly impossible to escape its lifestyle. But to argue that a project should be built in a different region is to completely give up on Skid Row and settle that it will never be a productive or family-conducive community.
In order to understand why it is important that Star Apartments is located in Skid Row, it is necessary to understand the dynamics of the area. In the documentary Lost Angels: Skid Row is My Home, director Thomas Q. Napper, attempts to justly frame the Skid Row community and the issues it faces. The documentary demonstrates that even though crime and drugs are rampant, the region has also nurtured a unique, lasting sense of community. Kevin “KK” Cohen, who is profiled in the film, lived on Skid Row for 14 years and became the fiancée and protector of Lee Anne Leven, an older, mentally ill, hunched-over Skid Row native. KK claims: “I would defend her with my life, believe that, dude. I would die behind this little lady right here.” Skid Row has fostered this unique and compelling relationship. I believe that while it is important not to isolate the poor from urban life, it is just as essential that longstanding neighborhoods are not abandoned because of negative outsider conceptions.
The Star Apartments could be the model for the future of affordable housing. However, as Mike Alviderez, the Executive Director of the Skid Row Housing Trust, told the L.A. Times, “We’re not going to be able to build our way out of homelessness.” Pre-fab affordable housing must not be seen as a solution for homelessness but as a way for those who are desperately poor to begin to climb out of poverty. It is one step in the mitigation of homelessness, just as pre-fab affordable housing can be viewed as one phase in the United States affordable housing timeline.
Hannah Squier is a second year Civil and Environmental Engineering major at UC Berkeley. She is interested in the way engineering and urban planning intersect to solve social and systemic injustices. Feel free to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.