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Innovative housing for the homeless being built in downtown L.A.

The Skid Row Housing Trust is building a 102-unit, $20.5-million complex by stacking pre-outfitted apartments atop one another in a Lego-like fashion to save time and money.

December 16, 2012|By Wesley Lowery, Los Angeles Times
  • Workers combine pre-built apartments into a building on South Maple Street.
Workers combine pre-built apartments into a building on South Maple Street. (Christina House, For The…)

The Skid Row Housing Trust has spent decades revitalizing abandoned buildings and hotels in downtown Los Angeles' most destitute neighborhood to serve as shelter for the city's chronically homeless.

But for its latest housing project, the trust abandoned its usual technique for a seemingly elementary construction concept. A 102-unit, $20.5-million complex is being built by stacking pre-outfitted apartments atop one another in a Lego-like fashion, limiting construction costs and fast-forwarding the project timeline. It is believed to be the first multi-tenant residential building in the nation to be constructed this way.

Like all of the Skid Row Housing Trust's 24 homes for the homeless, the sleek and distinctive Star Apartments are meticulously styled to look nothing like typical low-income housing.

The project, designed by award-winning architect Michael Maltzan, will include basketball courts, art centers, community gardens and hundreds of feet of green space. The stacking of apartment units began last week, and the bulk of the construction should be done by mid-January.

"What we're trying to create is something that feels like a microcosm of the city itself," said Maltzan, who has designed two other apartment complexes for the homeless in partnership with the trust.

Unlike dark, drafty and dreary low-income housing, where residents reside in monochromatic buildings, Maltzan's project, he said, infuses color and community with a layout and amenities that force residents to interact. That sense of community, housing trust officials believe, is paramount to rehabilitating the chronically homeless.

Because the pre-fabricated construction method is typically used for single-family homes, planners had to work with officials to clarify regulations and standards for shipping in the pre-constructed apartments, which the architect characterized as a tedious and at times frustrating process.

"The hope is that we've created a replicable pathway for similar projects," Maltzan said last week, as he watched a towering blue crane lift a pre-fabricated apartment unit onto a building platform. "When people look at this building, what they see is a vision of the future."

The Star Apartments will house up to 100 formerly homeless, with an emphasis on residents who are repeat patients at area emergency rooms or who have never received needed treatment for chronic medical conditions, said Mike Alvidrez, executive director of the Skid Row Housing Trust.

Residents will pay 30% of their monthly job or government assistance income as rent but are not required to seek on-site medical treatment, psychiatric counseling, drug or alcohol treatment or therapy as a condition of residency.

"The thought is, how do we help people make the choice that is best for them," said Alvidrez, who stressed the trust's Housing First model — a philosophy that has caught fire nationwide. Alvidrez said the first step to helping someone recover from a chronic drug or alcohol problem is to give them a home and sense of community.

"We're not going to build our way out of homelessness," Alvidrez said. While the housing trust's buildings are now home to more than 1,500 formerly homeless people, some estimates say as many as 51,000 people remain homeless in L.A. County.

The goal of the apartments is to fully rehabilitate residents through on-site social services, community space and professional development. While many eventually leave the housing trust's buildings and move into other homes, if they keep paying rent they're free to stay as long as they'd like. Lawrence Horn, 62, said he spent years on the streets of Los Angeles, afraid that his adult daughter might run into a destitute, shabby and drugged-out version of him while she was out on the town with her friends.

But a confident and polished Horn, in a crisp black shirt and suit, stood behind a lectern in front of about 50 people in the Last Bookstore on Tuesday and captivated them with a frank, 20-minute narrative of his life before and after moving into permanent housing offered by the trust.

Two years ago Horn moved off the streets and into the Carver Hotel, a circular structure designed by Maltzan next to the 10 Freeway. For the last year, he has been learning to become a spokesman for the trust through its resident ambassador program.

"I felt inferior, I felt less than," Horn said of his time living on the street. But now, he said, "my story is no longer a doom-and-gloom story."

wesley.lowrey@latimes.com

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