Lehrer Architects, an award-winning Los Angeles practice that’s garnered considerable attention of late for its Monopoly-esque tiny house villages that have sprung up in multiples across the San Fernando Valley, has completed a new project with a similarly playful approach that brings bold colors, geometric patterns, and a sense of community to an overlooked and awkwardly shaped infill site that would otherwise sit unused.
While the transitional housing villages for homeless Angelenos mentioned above are largely (but not exclusively) located in North Hollywood, the firm’s latest candy-colored housing project, the Willowbrook Apartments, can be found in the South L.A. community of the same name. (Located just south of Watts and northwest of Compton, Willowbrook is technically an unincorporated neighborhood of Los Angeles County.) An effort of L.A. County and the nonprofit developer Restore Neighborhoods Los Angeles (RNLA), the Willowbrook Apartments also differs from in that the seven-unit complex doesn’t function as a temporary stepping-stone toward permanent housing. It is permanent housing, earmarked for previously unhoused veterans with disabilities. The supportive housing campus, located on what was once a long-vacant trapezoidal site, is located near a community church and within close proximity to public transit.
While Lehrer Architects describes the seven units at the Willowbrook as being “micro” in size, the 300-square-foot living spaces, which are mirrored and placed back-to-back to maximize the amount of available space, are considerably larger than the ones found at the tiny house villages helmed by the firm in partnership with the City of Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering. (Those, which again are meant as temporary housing solutions, are a mere 64 square feet.) At the Willowbrook Apartments, each studio dwelling includes a private bathroom, kitchenette, and universal design features. “Whilst petite, the units are designed to have the longest interior view possible as well as the longest counter space possible, and an overall generosity of natural light and exterior view,” the firm explained. “Consolidating the entry closet, pantry, refrigerator, oven and sink next to a large counter, provides an appropriate sense of luxury and expansiveness for the unit and its inhabitant.”
The design of the dwellings was based on input from residents of similar housing developments, and are meant as prototypes that can be replicated in future county-helmed affordable housing projects at available infill lots.
Outdoor communal space anchors the complex, with each two units (save for one of them) sharing an entry patio that flank a larger arrival court. Housed within a taller, slope-roofed structure are a community meeting room, storage space, and offices that come together to form a “coherent urban campus,” the firm explained. A vivid lime green pathway connects the living units and community space. “Each bend and turn in the path provides real or implied mindful pause from the street to the front door, enhancing the separation from the public realm to the private,” the firm explained.
“As a low-cost development, it took a while to get the contractor on board to realize that design really matters on projects like this. But they got on board! For these communities to be realized, with a level of beauty, intention and design-consciousness not often seen in these types of projects, everyone involved must go beyond their professional and, often, financial comfort level. Bureaucratic challenges remain extreme, if not deadly, particularly leading up to permitting and construction,” explained Michael Lehrer, founder and president of Lehrer Architects.
He added: “I hope this project captures the imagination of the culture, showing how such housing can actively enhance its neighborhood, no matter where the residents lived previously. This is critical to destigmatize these types of housing projects, and to destigmatize the people who live there, demonstrating the true beauty of complete neighborhoods that take care of all residents.”
The Willowbrook Apartments was borne from a six-year partnership—now formally known as RETHINKHOUSING LA—between Lehrer Architects, RNLA, and community bank Genesis to bring affordable starter homes to underserved communities in South L.A. Per Lehrer Architects, the group currently has several sites that are either built or permit-ready.
“The Willowbrook Apartments, a small but mighty development, is a crucial step in our collaborative efforts to house our unhoused neighbors in Los Angeles County,” said Emilio Salas, executive director of the Los Angeles Country Development Authority (LACDA). “The LACDA is proud to be a part of a development that will offer positive supportive services to its new residents.”