When Kenneth Davis moved into the Abbey Apartments in Los Angeles, it was the first place he had on his own. The new keys in his pocket were the first he ever had in his name.

An advocate of the Housing First strategy, Mike Alvidrez is CEO of Skid Row Housing Trust in Los Angles.
Amanda Friedman An advocate of the Housing First strategy, Mike Alvidrez is CEO of Skid Row Housing Trust in Los Angles.

“I’ll tell you, just the sound of the doorbell was music to my ears,” says Davis, who had previously lived with his family, in a Texas prison, and on the streets. “I was able to appreciate the doorbell. I was able to appreciate the power of a locked door.”

Homeless for more than two years, he often spent his days on Crenshaw Boulevard and West Florence Avenue before he sought help. The foundation of that help would come from Skid Row Housing Trust, which gave him a place to live.

“When I got my own place, it gave me serenity,” Davis says. “It gave me peace. It gave me clarity. That’s when I decided, ‘Now, I need to see what to do next.’ ”

He worked on remaining clean and sober. He received help for untreated physical and mental health issues. He went back to school.

Davis, 52, lived at the Abbey, a Skid Row Housing Trust property, from 2012 to 2015. He now works for the Trust as a resident services coordinator after serving as a peer advocate. “This job has taken me from the pits to the palace,” he says. “The first thing I needed was a place called home.”

Housing First approach

The Trust changes lives. Along the way, it’s also changing the way people think about affordable housing.

The nonprofit organization operates 25 buildings with almost 1,800 permanent and supportive homes. Many of its residents have been chronically homeless, in some cases for as long as 20 to 25 years, and also have a mental illness, a disability, and/or addictions.

“I’m proudest of the fact that the model that we have been articulating for 15 years—that providing chronically homeless individuals with supportive housing in beautiful buildings is the most successful approach to ending homelessness—has now been widely adopted,” says Mike Alvidrez, CEO of the Trust. “It’s something that larger systems and the public have finally recognized as an efficacious solution, that it works.”

For its innovative work, the firm has earned the 2016 Hanley Award for Community Service in Sustainability from The Hanley Foundation and Hanley Wood, publisher of builder and affordable housing finance magazines. The award, with its $25,000 grant, was created to recognize community-based and nonprofit organizations working to advance sustainability and environmental awareness in the host cities of the annual Greenbuild International Conference and Expo, which will be held this month in Los Angeles.

The Trust is a leader in Housing First, an approach that prioritizes providing permanent housing to people experiencing homelessness as quickly as possible. The idea is that once people have stable housing, they are then in a better position to receive services and improve their lives. It’s a change from the old practice of providing housing only after people are clean and sober.

In recent years, the Trust has also become well known for its bold buildings. An example is the eye-catching Star Apartments designed by acclaimed architect Michael Maltzan. The development reuses an existing, one-story commercial building, eliminating the need to send construction materials to the landfill. The team then transformed the structure by staggering prefabricated modules onto the existing building to create 102 residential units for formerly homeless individuals as well as vital community space.

The $40 million LEED Platinum structure includes an on-site medical clinic, a 15,000-square-foot health and wellness center, and the new headquarters of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services’ Housing for Health Division.

Time magazine named Star Apartments among the 25 best inventions of 2015, alongside such other big ideas as the hoverboard and a gluten sensor.

Design matters

It takes grit to work in the Skid Row neighborhood, the epicenter of homelessness in America, with an estimated 3,000 people living on its streets or in shelters. Alvidrez, a native Angeleno, and his team of 200, which includes a property management company, have plenty of that.

Established in 1989, the Trust originally focused on renovating and preserving old SRO buildings that were at risk of being demolished or converted to other uses. After saving a number of these hotels-turned-apartment buildings, the organization made a pivotal decision to focus on developing new projects. “The new-construction typology gave us an opportunity to think more about how we can organize space in our buildings and help remediate some of the conditions that people experience while they’re homeless,” says Alvidrez.

That’s led to projects like Star Apartments and The Six, a new, $16.7 million, 52-unit permanent supportive housing ­development, with 35% of its units set aside for homeless veterans. Both communities were financed with the help of low-income housing tax credits.

The developments communicate that design is important even when building for formerly homeless people. “Just because you’re poor doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have good design in terms of where you live,” says Alvidrez.

Designed by Brooks + Scarpa, The Six is another LEED Platinum development, topped off by a rooftop solar hot-­water system. It’s visually striking, with a large opening in front and a sweeping second-floor courtyard that provides residents with a peaceful sanctuary while still being connected to the surrounding community. It’s the building’s most critical ­feature.

“Everybody has to walk through that space,” says architect Angela Brooks, managing principal at Brooks + Scarpa. “You’re not forcing people to be social, but you’re allowing them to have that opportunity if it presents itself.”

When planning a new project, the Trust likes to have its ­designers meet with a small group of residents from the organization’s other buildings. These formerly homeless individuals provide valuable insight into the needs of future residents. In the case of The Six, the group collaborated with the architects to fine-tune the original courtyard design so it would be more of a quiet refuge.

“Skid Row Housing Trust sees a good design as part of the healing process for people who live in the project,” Brooks says. “And this is carried through by them in every project they ­undertake.”

Located in L.A.’s MacArthur Park neighborhood, The Six is also significant because it is the Trust’s first development outside of downtown. “What we’ve learned in Skid Row is replicable,” Alvidrez says. “We certainly have a long way to go as a region.”

Indeed, there are nearly 47,000 homeless people in Los Angeles County. That means there are more people like Kenneth Davis out there, more housing that needs to be built. The Trust will be key in bringing them together.

“Housing has opened a new life for me,” Davis says. “Once I got housed, I was able to step over a spot that I was never able to step over before, and now I’m still going. I’m still going. I’m still going.”