04/12/19 Architecture Students and Faculty Lead the Charge in Equitable Housing Solutions


From short supply and high demand to a lack of affordable options, housing in Los Angeles is a complex and prominent issue that deserves the attention of local universities. As the crisis continues to evolve, architecture and architectural education are vital parts of the discussion surrounding housing equity.

Acknowledging the urgency of the issue, USC Architecture is actively engaged in contributing to industry-leading work in equitable housing. Lawrence Scarpa, FAIA, who co-leads award-winning design firm Brooks + Scarpa in addition to teaching at USC Architecture, produces renowned housing projects for all income levels. Scarpa’s firm recently won a top prize in the Los Angeles County Homeless Initiative Housing Innovation Challenge, which awarded a total of $4.5 million for innovative, low-cost housing solutions. Brooks + Scarpa’s proposal, NEST, utilized prefab design innovation to create a scalable and adaptable toolkit that provides housing on underutilized land areas.

The Six, another recently completed project by Scarpa’s firm, is a 52-unit affordable housing project specifically designed to meet the needs of veterans with disabilities. By incorporating desirable public spaces such as an art center and garden, the facility fosters a strong sense of community among the residents. “We think design is a human right and not a choice. We’re all people and it doesn’t really matter what our situation is,” said Scarpa.

Los Angeles often serves as a focal point and laboratory for research and course projects at USC Architecture, but faculty experts in other areas of housing inequity offer students a broader view of the issue. Assistant professor Faiza Moatasim’s research specializes in global spatial equity with a particular focus on impermanent settlements and slums, such as the ones she observed growing up in Pakistan. “It was impossible for me not to observe extreme examples of spatial inequity and the coexistence of extreme wealth and extreme poverty,” she said.

Since moving to Los Angeles, she has observed similarities between global and local housing issues, including inequitable economic factors, marginalized populations, and areas of concentrated parity. Moatasim adds that in many other countries, poorer parts of populations are better integrated into urban life and the economy because of the functions they provide to the community. “If groups are integrated into society, they have a better chance of achieving social and economic empowerment,” she said.

Moatasim began teaching at USC Architecture in fall 2018. One of her seminars, “Slums and the City,” examined how people in slums and squatter settlements live and work and their relationship to cities at large. The global understanding of impermanent settlements is then tied back into what is happening locally. Moatasim notes this is a unique course to find in an architecture school and is proud to work for a university that’s changing the focus of design to more pressing social conditions.

“Architecture, conventionally, has aligned itself with those with power,” Moatasim said. “Spaces that get highlighted are monumental buildings or those of cultural significance while spaces like slums are often ignored.”

Part of the school’s ethos is to look at social and community issues through the lens of architecture and design. “It is evident to me from how the design faculty teach their courses here that this is a school committed to social change,” said Moatasim. “The fact that you have a course on slums being taught at a school of architecture is really unique and deliberate.”

USC Architecture professor of practice Gary Paige adds, “Unfortunately, in many architectural programs, there’s a dearth of creative research not only addressing equitable housing as a contemporary problem but also framing the questions that will potentially lead to innovative solutions. It’s a key part of our core undergraduate and graduate curriculum and a focus of the post-professional program, Master of Advanced Architectural Studies, where we examine the issues in a local and global context.”

Architecture’s Next Generation is Poised to Make Change

In fall 2018, Paige taught an upper-division topic studio that asked students to consider what architects can do to address LA’s homelessness problem. Utilizing the City of Los Angeles’ “A Bridge Home” initiative as a guide, the studio researched a list of sites in low-income neighborhoods or actual Bridge Home sites. Through innovative architectural solutions, student projects ranged from Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU), homeless shelters, and permanent supportive housing to newer models such as micro-dwellings, share houses, and co-living scenarios.

“By definition, the issue of homelessness is one of inclusion and equity,” said Paige. “Access to housing should be an inalienable right instead of a privilege. With homelessness at record levels across the country, it’s a problem we should be dedicated to solving. The diversity of projects in the studio reflects the diversity of the students. In many instances, they’re based on personal experiences or that of someone they know.”

Students in Paige’s studio appreciated the opportunity to research a real-world problem and design for diverse populations. Victoria Cuan’s (B.Arch ‘20) project, a five-unit housing complex in Boyle Heights, offered a unique modular design that could accommodate various households and combat density issues. Cuan said the studio taught her the importance of bridging the gap between design and humanitarian responsibility.

“As professionals, our skills require us to address these issues regarding the universal housing crisis. It is something that we should all feel obligated to pay attention to,” Cuan said. “As someone who plans to practice in my hometown of Los Angeles, I believe that the lessons I am learning can be especially utilized here where there is great need for architects who design with empathy.”

Despite the complexity of the housing crisis, USC Architecture will continue and expand its efforts to be part of the solution to this wicked problem. By understanding that a progressive, critical design education and social responsibility should not be exclusive of one another, schools like USC Architecture are taking a step forward in helping the next generation of architects design with a conscious, community-driven mindset.

“The issue of homelessness should not only be seen as a problem to be solved but also as an opportunity to test our abilities as architects and educators. Good design and critical practice should not be confined to the purview of the 1 percent,” said Paige.

Scarpa adds that academia allows you to test against the status quo. “The world is always changing and it’s really important for students to look at new ways of thinking.” Scarpa frequently takes his students out of the classroom on “real-world field trips” to various housing projects and construction sites around the city, allowing them to see the reality of current processes and how to creatively push boundaries in their work.

Moving forward, Moatasim notes that building more houses will not solve the problem unless structures of inequality also change. “There needs to be an equal opportunity for everyone to live with dignity,” she said. By continuing to engage with the community, encourage interdisciplinary research, and foster a design culture that values equity, architecture schools can find ways to build greater understanding of the issues at hand, said Moatasim. “If a problem is complex, it doesn’t mean that we, as architects, don’t address it. It just means that our approach needs to be equally complex.”

This article was originally published by ArchDaily at www.archdaily.com/914765/architecture-students-and-faculty-lead-the-charge-in-equitable-housing-solutions.


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