This Firm Is Building Villages of Tiny Homes in Response to the Housing Crisis in Los Angeles

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This Firm Is Building Villages of Tiny Homes in Response to the Housing Crisis in Los Angeles
© Photo: Lehrer Architects An aerial view of the tiny homes village in Alexandria Park.

Nerin Kadribegovic came to America as a refugee in response to the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. “We were forced to leave our home and were housed abroad with other refugees in a hotel room while we searched for more permanent housing,” he recalls. “My mom, my brother, and I lived in a tiny room for over a year.” The U.S. was believed to be a place of safety and yet he explains that “years later, riding my bike through Skid Row [in Los Angeles], I couldn’t believe how American social networks had failed so miserably.”

What Nerin vividly describes is the mounting unhoused population: In California alone, the homeless population exceeds 160,000. This is combined with a lack of human-centric shelters that take into account people’s complicated, all-encompassing pasts, including the status of their mental health, systems involvement, exposure to violence, exclusion from opportunity based on race, drug use, dependents, and much more.

Nerin joined Michael Lehrer’s eponymously named architecture firm in 2002, following graduate school at the Southern California School of Architecture. At the time, Michael had been building his practice for 17 years in pursuit of (what were then labeled ‘radical’) projects infusing architecture with the concept of harm reduction, the ideology that we should accept marginalized communities where they are without judgment. For Lehrer Architects, this has meant building or converting spaces to provide unhoused individuals with privacy, integrity, and, perhaps most progressive in its execution, beauty. This core tenant of giving agency and respect to folks who have been deemed undeserving is why Bosnian-born Nerin teamed up with Michael when he did.

This Firm Is Building Villages of Tiny Homes in Response to the Housing Crisis in Los Angeles
© Photo: Lehrer Architects A corner of green and yellow houses at the Sunset & Alvarado location.

The pair has since spearheaded award-winning projects providing transitional and permanent housing for the unhoused, with their latest series leveraging the geographically flexible structure of tiny homes. Applying their philosophy of “no throwaway spaces,” the firm’s Tiny Home Villages cover everything from a forgotten L.A. infill to an abandoned lot in Echo Park. As of September, they opened a fourth location in North Hollywood with 77 units that can accommodate up to 150 people. 

Though these villages are technically designed and built in a three-month time frame, Nerin reveals that the process to get there is much longer. Lehrer Architects is one of many architectural entities that spend anywhere from a few months to over a year bidding to take on projects contracted by the city. Essentially, whoever can create an ideal, aesthetically pleasing solution with the lowest budget wins.

Nerin and Michael’s village bids stand out for two key reasons: their land malleability and their vibrant color. From the point of view of a drone, the village looks like a Monopoly board game, with the homes themselves brightly decorated in cobalt blue, canary yellow, magenta, and neon green. “Visual empathy is hyper important,” Michael explains of the impetus behind their colors (which he shares are inspired by Andy Warhol’s pop iconography and Joel Shaprio’s abstract sculptures). These partners have taken a structural social solution one step further by marrying it with a crucial design philosophy: that we as humans enjoy, deserve, and take solace in beautiful environments. 

This Firm Is Building Villages of Tiny Homes in Response to the Housing Crisis in Los Angeles
© Photo: Lehrer Architects A highway view of the village at Alexandria.

There’s no need to relegate those marginalized by capitalism to uncomfortable bunk beds and drab, transient army tents—particularly when, according to the Lehrer Architects’ team, adding color doesn’t necessarily affect a project’s budget. As Nerin puts it, it’s important to “present [unhoused] communities in such a way that they feel like they belong in an urban context.” Because of this, not only are Tiny Home Village residents genuinely excited by their surroundings (Nerin shared that a 63-year-old tenant stated he felt like he was living in a gated community, a.k.a. the ultimate form of luxury), their neighbors are more keen to welcome them, something that is often a determinant factor when it comes to carving out space for shelters.

Nerin argues that shelters, as they currently stand, don’t “bring the sort of resolution and beauty that elevate the spirit.” They also take up a lot of physical space, with large footprints that are only appropriate for certain real estate. In big cities, where homelessness often runs rampant, this sort of affordable surface area is harder to find. “We design little pixels that can fit into various wacky shapes of land—found in crevices and places previously overlooked,” Michael says. For this reason, city officials and designers have more flexibility and can meet the unhoused physically where they are across L.A. Moreover, rather than being separated by gender in shelters, families can stay together in these villages.

This Firm Is Building Villages of Tiny Homes in Response to the Housing Crisis in Los Angeles
© Photo: Lehrer Architects A row of tiny houses with green doors at the Saticoy village.

There’s also a component of privacy—something often negated in homeless shelters and nonexistent on the streets—that Michael and Nerin prioritize in their village design. According to Michael, residents actually spend most of their time physically inside their tiny homes, reveling in the access to heating, air-conditioning, and the ability to lock their doors. “For some, this is the first time in however long that they’ve been able to actually control their environment,” he adds.

In a neighborhood consciously erected to destigmatize the status of being unhoused, these villages are also equipped with case managers to support in résumé building, paperwork navigation, permanent housing pursuits, and otherwise. The goal is that, after 90 days, residents will be in a position to move to permanent housing, but can also apply for an extension if needed. For Michael, “every aspect of being human is being touched” when it comes to responding to the housing crisis in the U.S.

This Firm Is Building Villages of Tiny Homes in Response to the Housing Crisis in Los Angeles
© Photo: Lehrer Architects A highway view of the Saticoy village.

This is why social impact design of this gravity has to take on problem-solving at every level, from city permissions to individual resident needs. Michael and Nerin do not take this responsibility lightly. “For most people, it’s easy to dismiss homelessness as something that could never happen to them,” Nerin says. “But so many don’t realize that they are a doctor’s visit or a paycheck away from living on the street.”

Lehrer Architects emphasizes unhoused individuals as, above all else, deserving: of shelter, of autonomy, of integrity, and of beauty. And for Michael and Nerin, that’s all part of being an architect in the first place. Michael opened the interview paraphrasing Frank Gehry: “Being an architect is a social act.”

This Firm Is Building Villages of Tiny Homes in Response to the Housing Crisis in Los Angeles
© Photo: Lehrer Architects A colorful corner of tiny houses at the Alexandria village.

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