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Preeminent Architect Challenges Students To Build Better Affordable Housing in Lecture

The Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies hosting a virtual lecture Tuesday. The Center is jointly affiliated with the Harvard Kennedy School and the Graduate School of Design.
The Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies hosting a virtual lecture Tuesday. The Center is jointly affiliated with the Harvard Kennedy School and the Graduate School of Design. By Krystal K. Phu
By Brandon L. Kingdollar, Contributing Writer

Michael Maltzan, a Los Angeles-based architect who has designed low-income housing with the Skid Row Housing Trust for over a decade, challenged students to build quality housing for the homeless in a lecture hosted by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies Tuesday night.

The virtual seminar, which was attended by about 750 people, was moderated by Harvard Graduate School of Design Dean Sarah M. Whiting. Maltzan, an alumnus of the Graduate School of Design, appeared alongside Los Angeles-based housing advocates Michael Alvidrez and Helen Leung to discuss how architecture can address the affordable housing crisis.

During the lecture, Maltzan said it is important to be “realistic” about architecture’s ability to effect change but also to recognize its potential to bring about social progress.

“Homelessness has many causes and many faces — there is not a one-size-fits-all solution,” he said. “Trying to confront the scale of the problem simply with one type or approach to building has historically failed for the individual, the community, and our cities.”

According to the 2020 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, over 66,000 people currently experience homelessness in Los Angeles County, representing a 12.7 percent increase from 2019.

Maltzan has designed four housing projects with the Trust — Rainbow Apartments, New Carver Apartments, Star Apartments, and Crest Apartments. Alvidrez said many of these projects were named after Skid Row buildings that had been destroyed, signifying not only their replacement but also their improvement.

“It’s not uncommon for architects who have worked with the process of affordable housing to do one project and then subsequently say ‘Thank you, that was a lot of fun, but we’re done,’” Maltzan said. “For me, though, it was important to build on what we just learned from the ‘failures’ we grappled with.”

He also stressed the importance of taking these housing developments beyond Skid Row. Crest Apartments, for example, is located in the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Van Nuys, which was chosen due to its status as a center of the homeless veteran population, the target for this development.

“The location speaks to the Housing Trust’s ambition to continue to meet those populations close to where they are, as opposed to centralizing the homeless population in one small area of the city,” Maltzan said.

Wednesday’s seminar marked the 20th Annual John T. Dunlop Lecture sponsored by the JCHS, a collaboration between the Graduate School of Design and the Harvard Kennedy School.

Dunlop, a former Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, advised several U.S. presidents — from Franklin D. Roosevelt, Class of 1904, to Bill J. Clinton — on labor management and served as Secretary of Labor under Gerald R. Ford. Dunlop supported and guided the JCHS from its founding in 1959 until his death in 2003.

Both Whiting and JCHS Managing Director Christopher E. Herbert emphasized the need to continue conversations about affordable housing across the country.

“We only scratched the surface, I think,” Herbert said in an interview after the event.

Herbert added that he hopes students at the Graduate School of Design are inspired by the lecture to pursue affordable housing development in their careers.

“After Carver Apartments was built, we heard a lot of criticism that went something along the lines of ‘Why would you build something so nice for those people?’” Maltzan said at the end of his remarks. “The question, then, for architecture is not, ‘How can we build something so nice for them?’ but rather ‘How can we not?’”

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Graduate School of DesignUniversityHomelessnessHousing