Five winning ideas to build housing more quickly and cheaply for L.A.’s homeless community

One idea is to assemble micro communities out of polymer panels. Another is to revive the iconic L.A. bungalow courtyard. A third is to convert two-car garages into studio apartments across suburbia.

Those projects, and two others to build more-conventional housing using prefab modules, have been named winners of the Los Angeles County innovation challenge — a competition for $4.5 million in Measure H sales tax revenue. Fifty-three developers submitted entries, each offering ways to build and finance housing for homeless people.

As fanciful as some of the winning projects may be, they will all end homelessness for dozens of families and individuals, said Phil Ansell, head of the L.A. County Homeless Initiative.

Even more important “is the promise that these approaches will result in hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of units of housing being built in Los Angeles County more cheaply and more quickly,” Ansell said. “Scalability is fundamental to our objective.”

The innovation challenge is part of a growing push by local government, business and philanthropic leaders to break both the city’s and county’s dependency on a federal tax-credit program that for decades has been the bedrock of financing affordable and supportive housing.

As city and county voters have committed new local taxes to the homeless crisis, the slow and increasingly costly practice of building traditional, tax-credit-financed apartment buildings has become an impediment to getting homeless people into housing quickly.

For months, a citizen committee set up to oversee Proposition HHH, the city’s $1.2-billion homeless housing bond, has been raising concerns over setbacks and costs that have escalated to more than $500,000 per unit. In January, Mayor Eric Garcetti set aside $120 million from the bond to solicit innovative proposals to build 1,000 housing units without tax credits.

The county, with its innovation challenge, will use a smaller amount from Measure H — $4.5 million in awards, and $500,000 to administer the innovation challenge and monitor the housing projects — to test the best ideas.

A panel of judges — including representatives from local government, the housing industry and nonprofit sector —winnowed the applicants down to 12 finalistsbased on four criteria: “creative,” “achievable,” “meaningful” and “scalable.”

The following five winners were announced Feb. 1 at the downtown architectural school, SCI-Arc:

Houses that can float

A village in the Amazon was the inspiration for the project proposed by LifeArk, a company that builds houses that float.

After tiring of designing high-rises, architect Charles Wee tackled the problem of annual flooding in the Peruvian village where his cousin worked with indigenous people. Wee’s solution was a molded polymer panel that can be assembled into a variety of floor plans with basic tools.

Molded polymer house and schematic. (LifeArk)

“We have made all of the master molds,” Wee said, accepting the award. “Out of those molds, thousands of parts can be stamped. Roof, columns, floors can come together to allow any configuration on any kind of site.”

Another cousin, who works for the homeless services agency Illumination Foundation, drew Wee’s attention to the homeless crisis.

LifeArk is now purchasing land in El Monte and working with Illumination Foundation to build a community of three buildings for 16 homeless tenants. LifeArk will use the grant money to get certification from the California Department of Housing and Community Development, Wee said.

Read more at the Los Angeles Times.