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Sam Hall Kaplan

Low-Cost Housing: Art Form at Work

November 17, 1985|SAM HALL KAPLAN

Within the next few weeks, tenants will be moving into two new downtown Los Angeles housing projects which demonstrate that architecture as a social art perseveres and that it can deal with critical social issues as well as erudite design issues.

The very welcomed projects are a modest eight-unit courtyard complex at 732 E. Adams Blvd., christened Casa Familia, and a more ambitious and detailed development to the west, the 41-unit Freeman Villa at 1229 S. Westmoreland Ave.

Freeman Villa is the more conventional of the two. Designed by John Mutlow to serve the low-income elderly, the two- and three-story structure is nicely appointed with lounges, recreation rooms and sitting areas. There is even an attractive wood gazebo and tiled fountain in the entry court, lending the complex a Southern California flavor.

That flavor is dissipated somewhat inside by the enclosed hallways, which perhaps would have been more welcoming if they were more open. The varying roofs and balconies also are a bit busy, making the complex--already squatting on a rise above the street--appear bulky and not as neighborly as it was meant to be.

Still, Freeman Villa is a delight; the apartments are well detailed and bright, and as inviting as any conventionally financed rental complex rising these days in the Los Angeles region.

Considering the restrictive design standards for government-aided projects, this is another impressive effort by Mutlow, whose architecture continues to give the redevelopment of the Pico-Union area a sense of style.

But most important is that the project meets the pressing need for low-income housing for the elderly. Deserving credit for this is the state Housing Finance Agency and the city's Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), which funded the effort, and the Housing Development Services Inc. and the Pico Union Housing Corp., which sponsored it. Shapell Housing was the contractor, Barrio Planners the landscape architect, and consultant Noel Sweitzer,the energizer who stirred the concoction.

While the need for secure, affordable housing for low-income elderly is pressing, the need for decent housing for low-income families living in Skid Row hotels is desperate. There, large families are existing in single rooms, with a shared toilet down the hall, paying relatively high rents, on a day-to-day basis, simply because there is no alternative.

Three years ago, the problem prompted Arnold Stalk of the Southern California Institute of Architecture to join with Tanya Tull, a social worker, to form the nonprofit L.A. Family Housing Corp. to search for an alternative.

What Stalk and Tull came up with was a plan for a prototype housing complex that could be inexpensively constructed on vacant lots, a concept known as in-fill housing. "We wanted small, intimate projects scaled to the neighborhood that would not displace anyone," Stalk explained.

Eventually, the East Adams Boulevard site was found and Stalk, aided by his wife, Michelle, and CRA architects, came up with a design that could be funded. Joining the effort to launch the project was the Pico Union Housing Corp. and Sweitzer. Helping also was a $50,000 grant from the Weingart Foundation.

The result is Casa Familia, eight attached, two-bedroom, two-bathroom two-story units designed in a simple, modified adobe style, not unlike some of the modest, early modern efforts of Irving Gill, one of Southern California's architectural pioneers. Though the complex is still raw, awaiting the gardens of the tenants, its play area last week already was alive with children.

"Having seen children playing in the cramped hotels and in the streets and alleys of Skid Row and then seeing them here is, for me, what architecture is all about, solving the needs of people," Stalk said.

The entire project took just five months and $544,000 to build, about $50 a square foot, resulting in rents of $300 a month, plus utilities. The rents, which are lower than what most of the families had been paying in Skid Row hotels, will cover the maintenance and help retire a CRA loan.

"The beauty in this concept is that it is relatively simple, especially now that we have proven that it can work," Stalk added. "There are sites ripe for in-fill housing like this almost everywhere. We have three more ready to go. All we need is the funding."

The total cost to construct three more such projects, which would serve 24 more families, including an estimated 80 children, would cost the redevelopment agency about $1.6 million.

Ironically, this is almost exactly the same amount the CRA has "loaned" the Pershing Square Management Assn. to come up with a scheme to, in effect, sanitize the park and make it safe for surrounding private development. It is no coincidence that the association is an offshoot of the Central City Assn., whose president, Christopher Stewart, also sits on the board of the park group and on the board of the CRA.

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