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Designing innovative solutions for chronic homelessness


Designing innovative solutions for chronic homelessness

By Audrey Handelman | Gensler | May 3, 2018

Image: Gensler

Homelessness is on the rise in the United States for the first time since 2010, with both Los Angeles and the entire state of California hit particularly hard by what has become a full-blown humanitarian crisis. Los Angeles witnessed a 20 percent increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness from 2016 to 2017. We know how to solve, or at least greatly reduce, chronic homelessness in Los Angeles: Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH). So what’s stopping us from creating more PSH? Why is it taking so long and costing so much? The simple answer is that we need to start constructing these projects concurrently instead of one at a time, and with a unified strategy.

The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness calls PSH, “an evidence-based housing intervention,” which couples permanent affordable housing with “wrap-around supportive services for people experiencing homelessness, as well as other people with disabilities.” The federal government notes that this is the most cost-effective solution for both people experiencing chronic homelessness and taxpayers. PSH has gained support in cities around the country, including L.A., that are struggling with this unfolding crisis.

Our team in Los Angeles is proposing an initiative that, using a pre-fabricated prototype that cities could use to rapidly scale PSH, aims to reach a bold, but achievable goal: to house 10,000 of our chronically homeless people within 10 years.


Housing L.A.’s chronically homeless

In the summer of 2016, Gensler’s student interns worked on several research projects for the City of L.A. I served as an advisor for the team that focused on four sites in Lincoln Heights that the City identified for PSH. Our design solution involved pre-fabricated modular units to make the construction of the four buildings faster and more cost effective. The idea of prefab construction for multi-family housing was not new, but it got us thinking, “What if we could do this en masse? Could we house 10,000 of the City’s chronically homeless people?”



We originally started looking at the interns’ summer research project as most efforts approach PSH projects: one project at a time. But my background is in retail architecture, and no retailer ever wants just one store. They want hundreds, and to solve homelessness we need hundreds of PSH projects. So we asked, “What if PSH was handled like a retail roll-out? How would we approach it?”

Our Program Management Organization (PMO) group at Gensler oversees the strategy and construction of hundreds of locations for clients, while our design team develops a kit of parts to be used for each. We packaged this idea into a grant application for the MacArthur 100 & Change Grant and submitted it in the fall of 2016. By early 2017, we learned we made the semi-final round. In November 2016, 76 percent of L.A. voters passed the $1.2 billion bond measure, Proposition HHH, to fund the construction of up to 10,000 units of PSH.


Image © Gensler


With the housing crisis growing in L.A. and public support increasing for PSH, the money and the support were there. It became clear that an umbrella organization is needed to oversee the mass construction of hundreds of permanent supportive housing buildings throughout the L.A. To this end, our initiative proposes the following:

Working directly with the City, Council Districts, and developers to identify sites that are near existing homeless communities, mass transit, and homeless services. Through the PSH Ordinance, the entitlement process will become moot for these sites. However, if this ordinance does not pass, we plan to do a mass entitlement of the selected sites. This will produce a pipeline of land ready to have PSH built on it.

Designing a prefab prototype module in collaboration with a prefab manufacturer. The module will be inspected and certified by the state, so developers could use it as a product to install in their buildings. The modular unit can be similar to any household appliance, in that it comes completely packaged with all its parts and the contractor simply connects power, plumbing, and ventilation. These units can be completely fitted out with toilets, beds, sheets, etc. All of the materials used to construct the module, fixtures, furniture, finishes, and equipment may be procured in high volumes to realize the cost benefits of economies of scale. As the program grows, prefab manufacturers will open factories in L.A. to localize this effort, providing jobs and more sustainable practices.

Expediting the construction process: For the individual projects, developers are responsible for sitework and building the ground floor to contain supportive services for the homeless and desired amenities for the community, such as a grocery store or laundromat. They will then install the modular units in any configuration and quantity that works for the site. With the prefab units ready to install, this step in the construction process will take days instead of months, minimizing disturbance to neighbors. The building will then be finished with a façade that fits in the visual fabric of the surrounding community.

Oversight: The PMO team provides strategy and oversight for the processes outlined above.


Image © Gensler


As this program ramps up, projects will realize economies of scale and time savings at an exponential pace. This will reduce the cost, the construction timeline, and the risk to developers. With this unified strategy and a single point of oversight, we can implement an innovative solution to address chronic homelessness in major U.S. cities.

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