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The Homeless Studio Featured on Laist!

It goes without saying that we’re deep in a housing crisis in Los Angeles. Over 46,000 people experienced homelessness in L.A. County in 2016, according to a report from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

Proposition HHH (approved by voters in November), may provide relief in the future, as it’s slated to allocate $1.2 billion to generate some sorely-needed housing. The problem, though, is that new construction can move at a glacial speed due to a gaggle of city and state regulations (the state’s environmental review process, for instance, can add months and years to a project). As such, the benefits from HHH may take a while to take shape; some believe that it may be three to five years before new housing arrives.

Much of the focus, then, has shifted to filling the gap, and housing the homeless as quickly as possible. And it is in this vein that a class of USC students have designed a portable pod that aims to shelter the unhoused. The project, called Homes for Hope, is akin to an outsized homework assignment. And indeed it is a project that was undertaken by 11 fourth-year architectural students in a class taught by instructors Sofia Borges and R. Scott Mitchell. The whole endeavor was funded through MADWORKSHOP, a non-profit that supports innovative student projects.

The pods represent a mindful and integrated approach to design. On the surface they look sleek and purposefully-built, not drab and starkly utilitarian. Inside, the 92-square-feet that’s available is maximized for space, but also touched with some liveliness to make it welcoming. The designers achieved this by placing operable windows on both sides of the room. The back wall, which juts out like a bent elbow, has the effect of making the space seem more expansive. And, as Borges and Mitchell said in a joint message to LAist, the sense of spaciousness was additionally bolstered by “custom built-in furniture with places to rest, work, and store your belongings.” The designers also chose “light colored materials to enhance the atmosphere inside the space.”

All of this is to say that the pods aren’t merely a way station for the homeless, but a space to be comfortable in, too. While the pods are expected to be temporary living accommodations, they don’t give off that depressing air of haste and disregard. Beyond the aesthetics, they’re also practical in more ways than one. As noted at Fast Company Design, the pods are modular, meaning they can be repurposed as a bathroom unit, or a small office. And with the materials and labor factored in, each pod is estimated to cost about $25,000 (that’s about the same price as a base model sedan).

The rub, of course, comes back to state’s regulatory laws. And here we come to what is one of the most important aspects to Borges’ and Mitchell’s approach; instead of just churning out the pods and sending them out into the wild, the instructors invited city planners, activists, people with first-hand experience with homelessness, and others, to participate in the planning process. This ensured that the pod was ready-to-go once it was unveiled; not just in terms of being a palatable option for users, but also as a product that doesn’t run counter to any state regulations. “This kind of became a full time job to be honest,” said Borges and Mitchell. “We had at least 3 dozen outside experts involved in the development of this project. Because of the timely nature of the project and how pressing the issue is, people were very happy to get involved.” As noted at Fast Company, the pods are small enough to be put in a community of 30 units. And this is important. If it were to go beyond 30 units, a community would need to obtain a conditional use permit. This would make things prohibitively complicated, said Borges and Mitchell. “It would be insanely difficult otherwise,” the two wrote. “You’d have to go through planning, community review. There would have to be no push back from the community, and this could take 2 to 5 years.”

The concept of mini homes is not new. In 2016, several portable houses were plopped down on freeway overpasses in South Los Angeles. Unfortunately, the units were later taken away by authorities, who said that they’d found drug paraphernalia, according to the L.A. Times. The homes were constructed and set out without a formal process to establish their legality. Borges and Mitchell, however, are taking a more measured and mindful approach, one that follows in line with the process as a whole. “We are working on fundraising now to do a proof of concept pilot project in Sylmar (CD 7) in partnership with Hope of the Valley Rescue Mission,” they wrote. Which is also to say that, yes, Homes for Hope intends to be an actionable plan, and not just a flight of fancy.