DignityMoves community at 33 Gough Street, San Francisco
A row of buildings with a pool.

Rethinking Housing: Innovative Solutions to California’s Homelessness Crisis

Editor’s note: This interview was originally published in April 2023. It has been updated throughout with new information as of December 2023.

Despite ongoing efforts, it’s clear that the urgency of California’s housing and homelessness crisis remains a pressing concern as the number of people experiencing homelessness continues to challenge communities statewide. This situation underscores the importance of innovative and scalable solutions like those pioneered by DignityMoves in partnership with Gensler.

DignityMoves continues to make strides in bridging the gap between temporary shelters and permanent housing. Their “opportunity housing” concept, leveraging relocatable units on unused land, has shown promising results in providing dignified, interim housing solutions.

Here’s a look at insights from a conversation with Doug Zucker, Gensler’s Northwest Regional Practice Area Leader for Building Transformation & Adaptive Reuse, and Elizabeth Funk, DignityMoves founder and CEO.

Doug Zucker: Why do you think it’s necessary to rethink traditional definitions of housing to address the housing and homelessness crisis in our cities?

Elizabeth Funk: There is a missing rung on the housing ladder: nothing exists between shelter and ‘affordable’ housing. The overwhelmingly positive response to our first few DignityMoves opportunity communities has made us think about what more this model could do to provide desperately needed housing to low-income households in the state.

We have enormous budgets for homelessness, but it all goes towards permanent supportive housing. While we desperately need more permanent housing, both supportive and affordable, the missing piece of the whole puzzle requires an immediate solution for people living in the streets while waiting for their approval for permanent housing.

DZ: Why is community housing (vs. shelter) more appealing for some low-income residents?

EF: DignityMoves brings value beyond just providing beds and roofs overhead. We’re about instilling optimism. Currently, “opportunity” housing has been successful as a non-congregate alternative to emergency shelter. For some, it is preferable to live alone in a traditional apartment. By validating “opportunity” units as “housing” and not exclusively shelter, residents could choose this as a mid-term housing option while the state constructs more permanent housing.

At our DignityMoves community at 33 Gough Street in San Francisco, residents have expressed that they are willing to pay rent to stay and be a part of a community like this one. The site provides 70 private, dignified rooms for individuals experiencing homelessness. Each room has a bed, a desk and chair, heating, a window, and most importantly, a door that locks. The community also includes extensive dining and community spaces, a computer lab, a pet area, community gardens, and ample storage for residents’ belongings.

Going to a Single Room Occupancy (SRO) apartment alone is less appealing for many people. Our community housing is appealing and inexpensive. We try to strike a balance between people’s desire for privacy and community. That sense of community and belonging is a big part of it. For this community, that’s vital.

DZ: How is DignityMoves taking an innovative, unique approach to addressing this issue?

EF: We’re redefining a new category of housing. Because there’s a housing emergency in California, we can use the same emergency building codes that FEMA uses in response to natural disasters to build interim supportive housing communities on vacant land or parking lots. We’ve figured out how to use these building codes, and we’re helping to rewrite them, giving us flexibility, such as above-ground utilities, minimal room sizes, and streamlined permitting. Our structures are robust enough to have a 20-year life expectancy and are only bolted to the ground. We’re crafting a new concept — even though it’s not permanently affixed, we’re looking at how to take advantage of emergency building codes and build housing.

Using modular and prefabricated approaches, DignityMoves builds interim supportive housing at a fraction of the cost and time it takes to build traditional housing. It’s a wide-open frontier.

DZ: Gensler is committed to community impact and revitalizing cities. How can design tackle tough challenges and impact communities for the better?

EF: Because our structures aren’t permanent, it gives us more flexibility — we don’t have to worry about zoning, allowing us to take advantage of otherwise unusable land. We’re looking at our whole community and revitalizing it by putting all components to productive use, such as converting an underutilized lot into a revitalized asset.

The other part of this equation is that the unhoused are sleeping in parking lots in tents. By bringing them into housing where they have an address, they are recognized as neighbors by organizations such as Nextdoor, where they can have a voice in the community. These are our community members.

DZ: How do you think homelessness impacts the health of cities?

EF: Plenty of charts and data show the cost to society of having people on the streets. About half of the cost of our existing homelessness crisis is borne by the medical system due to preventable hospitalizations and frequent emergency room visits. And then there’s a psychological impact — the emotional dissonance of having people sleeping on the streets. We’re trying to bring back our humanity by seeing these folks as real people. Once people have stabilized in interim supportive housing, most of them can find their paths out of homelessness and start rebuilding their lives.

DZ: Can you talk about some of the projects you’re working on with Gensler, and how this modular “kit of parts” approach is designed to scale to other cities?

EF: We’ve partnered with Gensler to design facilities in San Francisco and Santa Barbara, with additional locations planned. We focus on two types of communities: First, a pop-up community that takes advantage of a parking lot for a few years. This is where we can be the most innovative — and second, more permanent interim supportive housing through the state’s Homekey program. We work with a different modular manufacturer for these facilities. There’s one in Rohnert Park, California, and another in Alameda, California. We’re having conversations statewide and nationally as the demand for this type of housing continues to rise.

Gensler has looked at this as a kit of parts. To scale this, we will need to get faster and more cost-effective. Using low-cost, prefabricated modules assembled onsite, we can build 10 times as many units as you could with traditional permanent supportive housing. The recipe is the same everywhere. Because our components are modular, you can pick them up and easily move them to the next place. You can dial up and down your capacity based on need. This is a completely new space we’re inventing.

DZ: Can you talk about your DignityNOW strategy, and how the Santa Barbara project is a model for other U.S. cities to address unsheltered homelessness?

In Santa Barbara County, Gensler consulted with the local historical society to build a temporary village that looks like it’s part of the community, with converted shipping containers that have nods to local architecture with arched entryways, terracotta-colored stucco, and vibrant colors. It’s beautiful, and it’s been well received.

In January, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors unanimously supported the updated Community Action Plan, which calls for developing several DignityMoves villages totaling approximately 437 beds, more than closing the existing shelter gap of 432 beds county-wide. They’ve assigned us six county-owned lots, and we’re building them all so everyone who needs one can have a room. This is what we call our DignityNOW strategy: building enough housing for everyone in a community who wants it.

DZ: Why are public-private partnerships essential to solving the homelessness crisis?

EF: DignityMoves is working with Gensler and partnering with several modular manufacturers to provide housing solutions in several infill locations across the state. We also partner with cities and counties to identify suitable vacant land for interim use and collaborate with best-in-class agencies that provide support services, such as job placement, case management, mental healthcare, and housing placement. Our innovative public-private partnerships draw in more resources from more directions faster than traditional housing. If we’re going to end these problems, it will need to be collaborative and all hands on deck. We’re not going to solve this on our own.

DignityMoves and Gensler continue to leverage modular and prefabricated construction methods to deploy housing solutions rapidly. This approach, characterized by flexibility and cost-effectiveness, is a model for other regions grappling with similar challenges. This type of collaboration, alongside government partners, exemplifies the power of public-private partnerships in addressing complex issues like homelessness. These innovative approaches and partnerships provide a template for other regions facing similar challenges. It’s a reminder that through collaboration, creativity, and commitment, we can end unsheltered homelessness in our communities.

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