For the past three decades, Mike Alvidrez has worked to transform housing and the way residents and the community view it in Los Angeles’ epicenter of homelessness—Skid Row.

Mike Alvidrez
Michael Lewis Mike Alvidrez

During his 28-year tenure at nonprofit Skid Row Housing Trust, 14 of those years as executive director and then CEO, Alvidrez helped to evolve permanent supportive housing for the formerly homeless, pushing the boundaries on on-site services and thoughtful design.

An early experience in his life has had an impact on the work he does. He, along with his mother and brothers, lived in public housing while his dad served in the military during World War II.

“Public housing is mostly seen in a negative light, but it served my family well,” he says. “I think that’s what appealed to me about getting into the housing field—the opportunity for transformation to benefit people in achieving a basic need. I think we still have a lot of work to make affordable housing a good thing and not thought about in pejorative terms.”

Native to Los Angeles, Alvidrez received a master’s degree from UCLA’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning and started out at the Community Corporation of Santa Monica, where he focused on acquiring and rehabbing housing stock that had fallen into disrepair.

He was then offered the opportunity in 1990 to join the Trust, a new start-up that was formed to respond to the disappearance of single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels serving some of the neediest. With his hands-on work over the years, he has helped to shape the nonprofit into a nationally recognized developer and provider of permanent supportive housing.

Starting out as a project manager, Alvidrez focused on the acquisition and rehab of older residential buildings built between the 1900s and 1920s.

“Given the level of homelessness in Skid Row in 1990 we wanted to preserve as much housing as we could, given the SRO demolitions that had occurred in prior decades,” he says. “The SRO model was what we understood. We embarked on an aggressive agenda to preserve as many of those remaining SRO buildings as possible while we had the political will and resources to do so existed.”

The firm's evolution

In the course of doing this work, the Trust saw a missing component on the property management side when it couldn’t find a third-party firm that understood the population’s needs. So in 1995, the nonprofit set up an affiliate property management company.

“That was a big deal for us to manage the buildings in a way consistent with the overall goals of ending homelessness and achieving stability,” he says.

From there, the Trust continued to evolve and transform lives. The property management side provided feedback and gave the team an opportunity to learn what would work best for the next development.

“We weren’t concerned with resident services until we began to manage these buildings in the early 1990s and realized we needed more than just housing to assist people in stabilizing their lives,” Alvidrez says. “We realized that folks experiencing homelessness and who often had one or more disabling conditions needed more than just a roof over their heads and affordable rent.”

With many of the formerly homeless suffering from health, mental health, or addiction issues—often multiple disabling conditions at the same time—the Trust recognized that the services component was essential, another key step in the nonprofit’s evolution. It shifted its thinking about partnering with other nonprofits to provide services, making services accessible for residents, and enhancing the aesthetics in its buildings to attract collaborative partners and destigmatize the services environment.

Alvidrez says one of the bigger contributions to the evolution of the company came when it began tackling new construction projects in the 2000s. That’s when the nonprofit started to look at how to design the buildings to allow for a greater opportunity for residents to gain stability and to be seen as an asset for the entire community.

“How do you make that first step possible in having homeless people believe it’s possible to change their lives when they have lived in this horrendous living situation often times for many years?” he asks. “The first thing people see when they have the opportunity to move in is what the building looks like. Looking back at the work that we’ve done at the Skid Row Housing Trust, I’m happy that we have been able to incorporate design elements into our buildings that basically say to homeless people that you are deserving of respect and dignity.”

While each building has its own story, Alvidrez points to the Star Apartments as a shining example.

Designed by renowned architect Michael Maltzan, the 102-unit development has a unique shape with prefabricated modular units placed intricately on a podium structure. It also has a health and wellness center and a health clinic, on which the Trust collaborated with the Housing for Health Division of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services.

Public support

The Trust's work has helped point to new solutions for serving the homeless in Los Angeles. “Well-designed, attractive permanent supportive housing is a way to solve the homelessness problem,” says Alvidrez.

Los Angeles residents passed two 10-year tax measures in 2016 and 2017, Prop HHH to provide $1.2 billion in bonds to pay for the construction of 10,000 units of housing for homeless people and Measure H that increased the county’s sales tax by a quarter-cent to fund services and prevention.

“You don’t find many leaders like Mike who have such an effective mix of policy, development, and program design skills,” says Matthew Doherty, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

“He has pioneered a vision of what permanent supportive housing can be, what it can look like, how it can operate, and who it can be successful for,” adds Doherty. “He has demonstrated to Los Angeles and the country what’s possible when you focus on design, service partnerships, and high-quality living environments.”

At the end of June, Alvidrez stepped away from the helm of the Trust. He will continue to serve the nonprofit as CEO emeritus and in a newly created external ambassador role to advocate for permanent supportive housing.

“I think we clearly don’t have nearly enough affordable housing in this country. Homelessness has been the tip of the iceberg in showing that inadequacy,” he says. “We need a significantly larger and much more robust and enlightened affordable housing component in our society if all of us are going to be able to enjoy the benefits of living in this country.”

He also says he will be taking much-needed time for himself. He’s now spending more time playing pickleball and cooking healthy meals, and he also plans to travel in the United States and abroad.