Los Angeles, California: Design Excellence for the Homeless at New Carver Apartments
Situated two miles southwest of Los Angeles’s Skid Row, the New Carver Apartments development is a permanent supportive housing facility serving the region’s homeless seniors and disabled men and women. The project includes 97 single-room occupancy dwellings combined with onsite healthcare and mental health services in a six-story cylindrical structure. Built to bring dignity to the residents it serves, the project calls attention to the challenges facing the region’s homeless population. The design earned the 2011 American Institute of Architects (AIA)/HUD Secretary’s Award for Excellence in Affordable Housing Design.
Background and Context
Los Angeles has long captured the hearts and minds of those in search of new opportunities, beginning with agricultural workers in the late 1800s.1 The city’s continuing allure contributes to one of its most pressing challenges: the 23,000 homeless residents who live on the city’s streets.2
For decades, the city’s homeless population has concentrated in a 50-block neighborhood east of downtown known as Skid Row. The area is home to several social services providers, and since the 1980s it has been the focus of efforts to house the city’s homeless.3 Much of the responsibility for providing affordable housing in Skid Row has fallen on the Skid Row Housing Trust (SRHT), a nonprofit that has developed affordable housing in the area since 1989. SRHT’s early work focused on rehabilitating and converting single-room occupancy buildings into affordable housing for the city’s homeless.
In recent years, as opportunities for hotel rehabilitation in Skid Row have become increasingly scarce, SRHT has shifted from rehabilitation to new construction. At the same time, area residents and business leaders have advocated that services and permanent supportive housing should be distributed more equitably throughout the city and county of Los Angeles. In 2008, SRHT acquired a 10,200-square-foot parcel in the city’s South Park neighborhood to provide permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless. South Park, near ongoing redevelopment efforts in downtown, is a thriving mixed-use neighborhood that includes housing and associated commercial services on the Metro Rail Blue and Expo lines.
Design and Program
The development team, which included Michael Maltzan Architecture, created an inspired and unique design for New Carver Apartments. The six-story structure’s cylindrical sawtooth massing responds to an irregularly shaped building lot. In addition, this massing minimizes the wall area directly exposed to the din of traffic using the adjacent Santa Monica Freeway. For the hundreds of thousands who travel along the highway each day, the unique building form also places the plight of the homeless population very much in the public conscience.
The building’s cylindrical form accommodates a financially viable housing program and supports the building’s operations. Beginning on the second floor and continuing through to the sixth, 97 apartments are organized around a 40-foot-diameter volume of space that opens from a central courtyard directly to the sky. The 304-square-foot studio apartments extend from a single loaded corridor to the building edge. From the entrance, each wedge-shaped unit widens to the exterior wall to accommodate the building’s circular form and create the sawtooth massing. The distinctive unit geometry creates multiple façade exposures to maximize natural lighting. The open-air courtyard reduces the building’s space conditioning requirements and preserves sight lines to promote resident safety.
Although the building’s design mitigates the negative effects of the highway, it does not insulate residents from the neighborhood or each other. The first floor provides street-level access and houses case management offices. Based on the Housing First model, which prioritizes permanent housing placement as the first step in addressing the needs of the homeless, the program at New Carver Apartments includes regular access to onsite health care. This service delivery model has been shown to address the related challenges of health and housing stability that plague the chronically homeless population. In addition to case management and clinical services, residents have access to a shared kitchen also located on the first floor and, outside the building, a community garden for resident use. Laundry facilities and a community room with a television and computers are provided on the third floor, and the sixth floor offers a partially enclosed roof deck with sweeping views of greater Los Angeles. Combined with the residential units, these areas provide public, semi-public, and private spaces throughout the building.
Financing and Entitlement
Although the project received 9 percent low-income housing tax credits from the California Tax Credit Allocation Committee, the collapse of financial markets in 2008 complicated efforts to secure an investor. Through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s Tax Credit Exchange Program, SRHT was able to exchange its tax credit allocation for equity at a rate of $0.85 on the dollar to generate approximately $15 million in equity. This transaction still left a financing gap, because the project was initially expected to generate $0.92 of equity for every dollar of tax credits. SRHT was able to close this gap by reducing the project’s required operating reserve. In addition to the federal tax credit exchange funds, the $33 million project received $8 million in loans through the supportive housing component of the state’s Multifamily Housing Program and $6.6 million from the Los Angeles Housing Department.
With more than 51,000 homeless persons living in Los Angeles County, including more than 23,000 living in the city of Los Angeles, the region faces significant challenges in providing permanent housing solutions for its most vulnerable residents. And as suitable sites for permanent supportive housing in Los Angeles’s Skid Row became scarce, alternative solutions that expand affordable housing are increasingly important. Recent research into the cost of homelessness in Los Angeles County demonstrates the significant public benefit of providing permanent supportive housing. The public cost of a resident in permanent supportive housing is approximately $600 a month, whereas the public cost for a homeless person approaches $3,000 a month.4
With New Carver Apartments, SRHT and Michael Maltzan Architecture have demonstrated the important role that design can play in permanent supportive housing. The development team leveraged the site’s constraints to create a building that brings the plight of the homeless to the forefront of the public’s consciousness and provides housing for the city’s most vulnerable residents.
To learn more about HUD’s efforts to eliminate homelessness, read the summer 2012 issue of Evidence Matters.
Donald Spivack. 1998. “History of Skid Row,” Skid Row Journal. Accessed 30 April 2013.
Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. 2011. “2011 Greater Los Angles Homeless Count Report.” Accessed 30 April 2013.
Manuel H. Moreno, Halil Toros, and Duc Doan. 2009. “Where We Sleep: Costs when Homeless and Housed in Los Angeles,” prepared by the Economic Roundtable for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. Accessed 30 April 2013.