After 120 years, Skid Row may be changing forever

No area is as synonymous with the nation’s homelessness crisis as Skid Row in Los Angeles. Now, the area is approaching a moment of generational-defining change.

Lots of other cities had their own “skid rows” before they were demolished, often through freeway construction and urban renewal projects. Not in L.A.

L.A.’s Skid Row persisted. To understand why, you have to go back to the 1970s.

The 50-block area just east of downtown’s central business district known as Skid Row was being threatened with redevelopment projects. But L.A. leaders decided that somewhere in the city had to have low-cost housing and social services for the region’s poor and downtrodden residents. They took steps to preserve thousands of rooms in turn-of-the-century single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels — buildings with tiny private rooms and shared bathrooms — that already existed. The motive, however, wasn’t just about giving poor people a place to live.

The idea, known as the “containment plan,” was designed to keep the people residing in Skid Row inside the neighborhood so they wouldn’t travel into other parts of the city.

Since then, homelessness and homelessness services have grown up across the region. But the push and pull between redevelopment — you can find toy manufacturers and even some high-end development — and preservation initiated by the 1970s debates over the containment plan still determines Skid Row’s fate.

Three major developments are in the works that could forever alter the community.

The SROs are in trouble. Back in the 1980s and ‘90s, with the support of city leaders, crumbling SROs were refurbished and turned into permanent homeless housing. But the buildings are facing financial and livability crises again.

Many public officials and service providers argue the SROs have outlived their usefulness, and want to demolish and replace them with apartments that have private facilities for every tenant. If the SROs were to go away, it would end an era of last-resort housing that began with Skid Row’s creation.

Nonprofit providers are building homeless housing high-rises. The Weingart Center is changing the look and feel of Skid Row with three new homeless housing developments currently under construction. These buildings — 12, 17 and 19 stories — will be among the tallest in the area and house 700 people in studios and one-bedrooms. The first is set to open this spring. The AIDS Healthcare Foundation is planning a 216-unit, 15-story building of its own in Skid Row.

A $2-billion project could bring thousands of higher-income residents to Skid Row. Denver-based developers Continuum Partners are proposing a massive $2-billion development on the northeast border of Skid Row next to Little Tokyo and the Arts District. If the City Council approves it, the project will bring 1,500 new homes, 410,000 square feet of office space, a 68-room hotel and retail restaurant space. Gov. Gavin Newsom has endorsed it.

The developer is conspicuously leaving Skid Row out of the marketing for the project, referring to the effort instead as “the New Gateway to DTLA.”

All together, it’s likely that five years from now, Skid Row will look vastly different than it does today. But the neighborhood’s status as the last resort for the L.A.’s most vulnerable doesn’t appear to be changing. Earlier this month, my colleagues Ruben Vives and Doug Smith reported on recently arriving migrant families with young children from Nicaragua, Peru, Honduras and Venezuela with no connections to Los Angeles living in tents on the streets of Skid Row.

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