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Curbed LA: USC students design tiny cabins to house homeless women in LA

Architecture students at USC have designed a creative solution to temporarily shelter homeless women: petite pods built of birch, steel, and aluminum that can be stacked and rearranged on parking lots or vacant plots of land.

They’re kind of like cargo containers, which have also been used for homeless housing, but these mini cabins are expected to be cheaper and lighter, simpler to replicate, and easier to put up and take down.

“Our real goal is to get people housed as quickly as possible to get people off the streets sooner,” said Sofia Borges, director of Madworkshop, which partnered with USC to task architecture students with designing homes for the escalating number of homeless people living in Los Angeles. “That simple act of elevating you head off the sidewalk and into a private space is a game changer.”

They collaborated with Mission Hills-based nonprofit Hope of the Valley Rescue Mission, which doesn’t offer any transitional housing for women who are 55 years and older, said executive director Ken Craft.

That type of stepping stone housing is sorely needed. The city’s vacancy rate is so low, and the cost of rent is so high, that Craft said even people with housing vouchers often end up living on the streets while they search for a long-term place to live.


The students sketched out plans for the pods, which measure about 90 square feet each—that’s big enough for a bed, a small desk, and a bit of storage. Then, they quickly built a prototype. The unit, which has three windows, wood floors, glossy white walls, is bright, full of light, and minimalistic à la Ikea.

“This one was built very well but by students. It’s beautiful,” said R. Scott Mitchell, an assistant professor at USC. “They built the final working type in about a week and a half. It’s amazing what they did.”

It’s not only pretty—it’s designed to be totally code compliant.

“On the first day of class, the city’s head engineer walked into class, and we expected him to shut us down, but he said we’re going to do this,” Mitchell said. “In all my outside work, I’ve never had this much help from city building and planning.”


That’s important, because the goal is to build a mini village made up of the pods at Hope of the Valley, and to find a manufacture to churn out lots of them for other sites across the city without needing special permits.

“The units will be prefabbed from the ground up,” Mitchell said. “We wanted to work something that building and safety would be familiar with.”

Hope of the Valley is fundraising to finish the working architectural and engineering plans. It’s estimated one pod will cost about $25,000 to make. Craft envisions a complex of 30 residential units, plus shared bathroom pods and a handful that will be connected for communal living spaces.

The nonprofit just applied for $1.8 million in Measure HHH funding, he said.. Approved by voters this month, the measure is a sales tax increase to fund homeless services and housing, including bridge housing.

“This is a viable solution to getting people of the streets,” said Craft. “If we have a pathway to take them to permanent housing, great. If not, it’s inhumane to leave people not he street for three to five years while we try to build ourselves out of this problem.”