Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

The collapse of LA’s Skid Row Housing Trust reveals a lack of investment in the maintenance of supportive housing properties.

‘One of Skid Row’s largest housing providers faces financial implosion,’ ran a headline in the Los Angeles Times in early February. Prospects looked bleak for the Skid Row Housing Trust (SRHT), a non‑profit property developer and pioneer in providing housing and services for Los Angeles’ unhoused people. 

A month later, a second article in the newspaper reported appalling conditions in the older single‑room occupancy (SRO) properties: mouldering corridors, broken plumbing, waste and hoarding. There are 29 buildings in the organisation’s portfolio. A little more than half of these are permanent supportive housing (PSH) designed by top architecture firms, while the rest are SROs, constructed in the early 20th century and serving the city’s lowest‑income populations. 

According to financial reports on the SRHT website, expenses exceeded revenue year after year. With a multi‑million‑dollar gap, the trust could not afford to keep up proper maintenance. Philanthropic parties stepped in to help and leadership assured 165 staff members – people who had dedicated their lives to helping those at society’s margins – that residents would be safe. Donations, however, could not offset the burden of operational costs. By April, the organisation was in receivership, and a Los Angeles Superior Court judge put responsibly in the hands of receiver Mark Adams on behalf of the city. By summer, even that solution seemed to be faltering, with the city attorney discussing plans to oust Adams. At the time of writing, the future of Skid Row Housing Trust properties remains uncertain. 

SRHT buildings are home to some 2,000 residents. Such a figure is dwarfed by the crisis. In 2023, Los Angeles County has an unhoused population estimated at 75,000, up nine per cent from the previous year. This place of palm trees and movie stars is hardly a shining oasis. Precarity weighs over the city like smog. Steadily increasing costs of living push affordable housing out of reach for many. Heavy rains and brutal temperatures caused by climate change only add to the dangers faced by individuals and families encamped on streets and in cars. 

Could the trust’s implosion be a warning sign that Southern California’s ecosystem of supportive housing is a house of cards ready to collapse in the face of inflation, rising interest rates and labour shortages? That vision is terrifying and demoralising. ‘The story of Skid Row is not a story in isolation,’ says architect Michael Maltzan. ‘It is a representation of how precarious our urban life can be, for individuals, for the city and for organisations.’ Over the past two decades, his firm has designed multiple affordable housing projects for the SRHT. These buildings have garnered awards and exhibitions but, more importantly, they helped to change the larger conversation of how design might best serve those who are most vulnerable.

What’s tragic about SRHT’s struggles is that the root of its demise lies precisely at the site of its original innovation. Dating back to the early 20th century, Los Angeles’ SROs are located in the 50‑block-square neighbourhood of Skid Row, just east of Downtown. These small hotel‑like apartments were home to the city’s working poor, unemployed and disabled residents. Like in many cities, many of LA’s SROs started being demolished in the 1970s, under the banner of urban redevelopment, or converted into market‑rate condos. The erasure of so‑called ‘blight’ came with consequences. Over the next decades, some 15,000 units disappeared, displacing marginalised people. ‘In 1989, community activists and business leaders of Los Angeles’ Downtown community responded to the alarming disappearance of affordable, permanent housing by coming together to create Skid Row Housing Trust,’ reads a brief history on the SRHT website. That newly founded group used a combination of private equity, low‑income tax credits and public funding to save and renovate multiple buildings.

‘These buildings have garnered awards and exhibitions but, more importantly, they changed the conversation of how design might best serve those who are most vulnerable’

‘In watching this story unfold, it’s easy to forget the ambitions of the positive and the progressive,’ says Maltzan. ‘Putting together considerations about the long‑term effects of the city with a deep sense of responsiveness to protect the homeless community was an invention – a rather avant‑garde invention.’ The trust’s vision to combine preservation with extremely low‑income housing was revolutionary. ‘They were willing to take the risk,’ says Alan Greenlee, executive director of the Southern California Association of Nonprofit Housing. ‘These units are vitally important to the overall system of what we do to address homelessness here in LA.’

Three decades later, the trust’s first buildings are nearly a hundred years old. Over that time, the usefulness of the SRO typology has run its course. Greenlee notes that the financial structure of the deal never really allowed for sustained healthy operation of the buildings. While originally, tax credits and outside investors financed the buildings, those investors left the project 15 years in, transferring sole ownership to the trust. 

Additionally, over the last 10 years there has been considerable investment in another housing type: permanent supportive housing, thanks to funding sources such as Los Angeles’ Proposition HHH in 2016, which authorised a US$1.2 billion Homelessness Reduction and Prevention, Housing and Facilities Bond directed at the construction of thousands of new units. ‘Quite candidly,’ says Greenlee, ‘the product – the SRO hotel – is not consistent with what’s currently being provided either on an interim basis or on a long‑term basis. Potential residents of those buildings exercise choice, and say, “Yeah, we’re not moving into those places.”’ The LA Times reported that even in a city desperate for homes, units were uninhabitable and left vacant. Occupancy rates were at 78 per cent, leaving less rent to cover maintenance and operations.

‘This is a wake‑up call, not a failure,’ says Julie Eizenberg, one of the founders of Koning Eizenberg Architecture. In 1992, her firm rehabilitated the 115‑unit Simone Hotel for the trust, then returned in 2018 to renovate the building. She stresses that durability is important, not only from an economic or construction perspective, but maintenance is what gives a resident a sense of belonging. ‘If you’re giving architecture, you’re giving it generously, and to show you’re generous there needs to be craft, there needs to be care,’ she says, and shares a lesson she learned from Alice Callaghan, an Episcopalian priest who was one of the SRHT’s first leaders. The housing rights advocate had asked for tile on the facade of the building. The architects baulked because it would add costs to an already lean budget. ‘She said, “I like something that looks like somebody’s cleaned it, that means we care about it,”’ Eizenberg recalls. So they used tiles.

Care is critical to the changing ecology of providing shelter for people at risk of, or experiencing, homelessness. As opposed to the efficiency‑minded SRO model, permanent supportive housing complexes are newly constructed and include on‑site services (including mental health support) and apartments are generally larger, featuring in‑unit kitchens and bathrooms. A June 2023 report by UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation outlined how the state of California prioritises this PSH approach. There are multiple affordable housing programmes in place that offer tax credits, state investment or local bond measures, and yet there are few incentives underwriting day‑to‑day operations costs. The consequences negatively impact organisations like SRHT and individuals alike. It’s a matter of equity. ‘In Los Angeles, research found that Black residents were more likely to return to homelessness after moving into PSH, due in part to insufficient case management and lack of culturally competent services,’ writes the report’s author Carolina Reid, who argues in support of long‑term operating subsidies.

When the SRHT began developing permanent supportive housing, its leadership made a practice of hiring excellent LA‑based architects including Michael Maltzan Architecture, Koning Eizenberg, and Brooks + Scarpa. Their ground‑up projects relied on financing buoyed by tax credits, investments and bonds for construction, and required design approaches that managed the inherent tensions that would arise. Maltzan’s Star Apartments from 2013 (AR September 2013), for example, used prefabricated units to manage durability, while with The Six (2016), Brooks + Scarpa implemented energy-efficient tactics such as natural passive cooling and a solar collector system for hot water, which helped offset operational expenses over time.  

‘Skid Row is one of the most brutal environments to be in,’ says architect Brian Lane, a principal at Koning Eizenberg who has been designing affordable housing for more than three decades. His approach to the PSH project Flor Lofts (2020), also for the trust, was to arrange units around a central courtyard to ensure accessible and secure green space in a heat‑blasted neighbourhood and foster a feeling of community. ‘Because we didn’t have to provide underground parking, we saw the opportunity to plant trees in the dirt and create a garden,’ says Lane.

In the firm’s design, each of the 99 units has a doorbell. This seemingly minor detail is as important as the big‑ticket terms bandied about when discussing the meta issues: health, injustice, climate. A doorbell allows residents who have been struggling on the street a sense of autonomy, privacy and safety. Access to their home is under their own control. 

In 1996, Brooks + Scarpa renovated two buildings for SRHT, the 60‑unit Rossmore Hotel and the 58‑unit Weldon Hotel. Architect Angela Brooks remarked that the design interventions her firm provided were small, but meaningful. They improved energy efficiency, added a lift for accessibility, and found within the building’s footprint space for courtyards and a yard to the side that could be turned into places of respite and communality. Those lessons were echoed in The Six, where units for veterans with a disability are placed around a central outdoor space. Brooks, however, is not ready to give up on SROs as a building type to pursue. She argues for a wider variety of housing solutions. Although lenders shy away, the SRO model could better serve the rising number of families comprising just one or two people. Moreover, this approach may be more sustainable in the long term. ‘If you think about the density of the two buildings we renovated, they’re over 400 units per acre,’ she says. ‘Then think about how many unhoused people we have in LA. The parking lot of Dodger Stadium could house 60,000 people if we build at the same density of those two buildings on Skid Row.’

The architects I spoke to voiced urgency and grief when discussing the future of Skid Row Housing Trust. Few knew the fate of the projects they designed. Of the 29 properties, only one had found new ownership. Maltzan revealed that his Crest Apartments in Van Nuys (2016) is slated for transfer to LA Family Housing Corporation. As other pieces of the portfolio are dispersed, what’s lost is a robust institutional memory. The organisation’s leadership and staff were keepers of the myriad ways to provide critical services while navigating policy and financing. Architecture was the cumulative expression of such complex forces, and each project a case study for experimentation and improvement. ‘With each increment of housing that comes online, you’re building a piece of a larger organism of the city as a whole,’ says Maltzan. ‘The members of the trust were cognisant of that. I don’t know how you transfer that collective knowledge without creating an organisational structure that can share what’s at stake.’