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Joel John Roberts Headshot

Redesigning How This Country Houses The Homeless

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I sat in a cavernous auditorium during my youth along with hundreds of other eager collegians who were determined to become the next Frank Lloyd Wright, America's most fabled architect. An older man carefully strolled across the empty stage to a standing ovation of his youthful aficionados. He wore a dark rumpled-looking suit, had very little hair, and wore glasses that looked like he was a rocket scientist during the old Soviet arms race.

This architect and futurist hero was Buckminster Fuller who famously called our planet, "Spaceship Earth", and created the geodesic dome, a cheap way to build an American home. He was one of those innovative architects who always thought outside of the box, or in his case, thought outside of the dome.

In his time, Fuller was concerned about how America was going to house all of the returning World War II GI's and their growing families. Even 60 years ago, housing was a paramount issue in this country.

Today, more than ever, a new way of designing housing for Americans who cannot afford even a simple stucco-boxed apartment is desperately needed. The sheer numbers of homeless Americans mandate new creations from the most imaginative designers.

It used to be that designers from a generation ago created housing units for this nation's poor by partitioning tall boxes made of concrete block that looked more like prison blocks than apartment buildings. They were the old housing projects for impoverished families and the old SRO (single room occupancy) buildings in this country's urban core.

Thankfully, these social experiments were deemed a failure, and many cities are starting to replace them. New thinkers, however, are challenging this generation of designers to not simply create typical market-rate apartment buildings but re-imagine how this country houses its poor.

The 1950s-style American family residence, with its two car garage, white picket fence, and wood shake shingles is not the template for today's affordable home. Neither is the 1970s-style apartment building with large two-bedrooms nestled around a living room and kitchen, decks overlooking courtyards, and two parking spaces per unit underneath the structure.

These residential structures were designed for American family units that are more of a rarity today. There are less and less two-parent family units with three children. The stereotypical homeless individual is not an alcoholic single man who just needs a room in a concrete block building off of Skid Row.

Households in America have evolved, but our designs to house them have not.

Today, adult children are moving back into their parents home because they cannot afford their own housing. Single parents with a number of children are the norm not the exception. Sometimes three generations of one family are now living together.

And single homeless Americans are in need of a community of support, not just an isolated single room in a concrete block building.

So why not design micro-lofts for homeless Americans that use up half the square footage of a typical studio apartment? For practically the same price of one affordable housing building, we could double the number of people housed.

One of the agencies I run just finished construction of a 49-unit affordable apartment building in Los Angeles that houses formerly homeless neighbors. Local building and planning codes and strict requirements from funding sources controlled the size of units, number of parking spaces, and number of units according to the size of land.

But in reality, we could have built micro-lofts that were half the size of our typical units and housed 98 people instead of 49. If only the codes and regulations would have allowed it. Words on paper, and policies created by bureaucrats left nearly 50 people still living on the streets.

Family units in this country have also changed. Rather than building detached single family homes, why not create homes and apartments where multi-generational family units could live? That would mean, perhaps, 3-8 bedrooms linked to one common eating and living space.

Or several families struggling with economic survival could live together in a communal space, rather than resorting to life in a motel or a shelter.

Unrelated college students already share housing space with multiple bedrooms and common living space. Why not unrelated seniors struggling to make ends meet, live in these spaces with college students and formerly homeless Americans?

We need more architects like Buckminster Fuller helping us to think differently. Because redesigning the way we house homeless Americans could end homelessness.

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