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Housing Perspectives

Research, trends, and perspective from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies

Housing as Infrastructure: Can Architects Address Homelessness?

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, homelessness was on the rise in the United States. The Center’s 20th annual John T. Dunlop lecture, held virtually on October 13th, approached this crisis from the standpoint of the designer, asking what role (if any) architecture might play. Focused on Los Angeles as an epicenter of the homelessness crisis, architect Michael Maltzan, FAIA presented several permanent supportive housing projects his firm has designed for the Skid Row Housing Trust. Recognizing that homelessness is a social – not individual – issue, the Trust aims to provide both housing and an ecosystem of health and community programs for the formerly homeless residents of their buildings.

“We have to be realistic about architecture’s ability, on its own, to create wholesale social change,” Maltzan opened. At the same time, he urged architects to step up to face social challenges. “There is, within architecture’s range of capabilities, genuine potential for agency to use its unique tools and skillsets to demonstrate what is possible; to develop new, useful prototypes to help reconnect community; to make problems society wishes to hide visible in positive ways.” In their three projects for the Skid Row Housing Trust, Michael Maltzan Architects equally considered interior and urban context, centering residents with welcoming spaces that encourage socializing, while drawing connections to the surrounding neighborhood.

Affordable multifamily housing is something many firms don’t attempt more than once, but Maltzan noted that lessons from one project could significantly improve the next. After budgetary issues compromised some design elements in Rainbow Apartments, the team fundamentally reconsidered their approach. The unique radial design of the subsequent New Carver Apartments dampens exterior noise and shrank construction costs, while drawing the eyes of drivers on the nearby freeway – making supportive housing visible to the wider city.

Maltzan closed with the big picture: if we seek to create a more just society, we must fundamentally reshape societal assumptions of what every person deserves. Design should not be a luxury; neither, of course, should stable and affordable housing. In a conversation after the lecture, moderated by Harvard Graduate School of Design Dean Sarah Whiting, Helen Leung affirmed that designers have a role to play in creating this reality; her organization, LA-Más, employs design expertise in the service of community advocacy. But it also requires changing hearts and minds, said Mike Alvidrez, former CEO of the Skid Row Housing Trust, particularly of people who are unable to see the connection between housing those without homes and the flourishing of the wider city. In the fight to create better outcomes for all, he concluded, “housing is the most important infrastructure that we have.”

Watch the full lecture: