Concrete Details: La Casa in Columbia Heights Is a Rare Aesthetic and Policy Success


The best building that’s gone up in the District in recent months isn’t a swish law office or a deluxe condo tower—although you might easily mistake it for either of those things, with its double-height lobby and artfully layered facade.

La Casa, which reopened on Irving Street in Columbia Heights in December 2014, is housing for homeless residents. Not only that, but its 40 residents were chosen from the most vulnerable segment of the homeless population. Most of them lived on the streets for years, and many still grapple with substance abuse or mental health problems.

You would never know it from looking at their new home. And that’s the point.

La Casa is not a shelter. It’s permanent supportive housing, a housing type that has emerged alongside an innovative policy to tackle homelessness called Housing First. The traditional approach to helping the homeless went something like this: Ask them to prove they’re “ready” for subsidized housing by sobering up or getting psychiatric treatment. Once they’re housed, make sure they stay clean and take their meds, or they’re out.

Housing First turns that approach on its head. Not surprisingly, a lot of people find it very difficult to stick to a treatment regimen when they don’t know where they’ll be sleeping that night. For many of the chronically homeless, the bar for stable housing would always remain out of reach. In the early 1990s, a psychologist in New York City named Sam Tsemberis proposed a radical alternative: Give the homeless somewhere to live, somewhere nice, no strings attached. Then, when they’re safe and don’t have to worry about being kicked out, they can focus on everything else.

The success of Housing First took the homeless-services world by surprise. It has been overwhelming, with retention rates of around 85 percent, as opposed to 60 percent or lower on other models. A trial by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs found that it substantially lowers rates of addiction and health-related costs for participants. (About a quarter of La Casa’s residents are veterans.)

Positive results from Housing First programs in New York and Seattle swayed officials at the D.C. Department of Human Services as they were planning to replace the old La Casa shelter, located on the same site. You might remember it: a small building and squalid set of trailers that men filed into every evening and then out of the next morning. The old La Casa was temporary housing. Its replacement, the city decided, would be permanent.

One of the tenets of Housing First, originating with Tsemberis himself, is that the housing should have aesthetic merit, and avoid the depressing whiff of an institution. To that end, the District selected a capable and well-matched design team: Studio Twenty Seven Architecture, a local, progressive practice with a string of D.C. charter schools and custom homes to its name, and Leo A Daly, a global firm expert in delivering large, complex projects on tight schedules and budgets. Together, they designed a building as warm, humane, and attractive as could be hoped. The intent was that it would not look inferior to the market-rate apartments and newer retail buildings around it. In fact, gratifyingly, it looks better.

Like so many new buildings in the city, La Casa squeezes as much usable space out of its lot as possible. Unable to go tall, due to the height limit, District architects have little choice but to go boxy. But the design team proved adept at relieving glass-box syndrome through smart, simple moves. On both the front of the seven-story building and its east facade, where it meets the Highland Park apartments at a setback, a gentle kink in the wall plane draws the eye and reinforces the “shoulder height” along the street, creating a comfortable scale for pedestrians.

The main facade on Irving defies boxiness in a few more ways. Its rhythm of staggered, different-sized windows and panels adds a sense of motion to a surface that otherwise might have been dull, and depth to what might have seemed flat. Tall, skinny windows emphasize verticality so the building doesn’t appear squat, a common D.C. pitfall.

Walking east on Irving, with the building to your right, a passerby can track the subtle inflection of the faux-wood-paneled facade. Between it and the sidewalk lies a small garden planted with waving grasses—a stylish contrast to the begonia mounds plopped in front of other apartment buildings. But the real attention-getter is the building’s lobby, formed by an L of intersecting glass walls. Bright orange trusses zigzag inside it, a vivid touch of structural expressionism.

Across the building’s threshold, with its mat bearing the words “La Casa” in a crisp font—per your average yuppie apartment complex—a minimalist reception desk sits off to the right. There are two apartments on the first floor, down a hall accessible via key card. Past the elevators and behind fritted glass walls are offices used by the staff of Friendship Place, the nonprofit that manages La Casa. Staff work on site 24/7 to assist residents (hence the “supportive” in “permanent supportive housing”).

A mezzanine overhangs the lobby, jutting slightly askew to the building’s main geometry. Up on the second floor, La Casa has a pleasant outdoor terrace and a common room that can fit all 40 residents. This is where they held a Super Bowl party in February, and where they’ll gather for Thanksgiving dinner a few weeks from now.

The rest of the apartments are on the higher floors, also accessed via key card. Each resident has his own private unit, a 300-square-foot studio with a bathroom and galley kitchen. Units are spartan, but not cold or dreary. Polished concrete is used as flooring in the kitchen and dining area, warmer wood-effect vinyl in the sleeping area. Subway tiles give a bit of color to the kitchens. With full-length windows and eight-foot-plus ceilings, the apartments feel bright and airy. A number of them are ADA accessible, and the building is expected to get a LEED Gold sustainability rating.

Throughout La Casa, walls are painted clean white—an unusual choice for any kind of group residence, given the expected wear and tear. But staff members say the residents are zealous about keeping the walls, and everything else, in good condition, and take their neighbors to task if they leave a scuff mark.

La Casa was not cheap to build. At $385 per square foot, it’s on par with market-rate apartments. Even the compactness of the units added to the cost, in effect, because kitchens and bathrooms cost more than bedrooms. But Housing First has proved to be an economical model in other cities. Living on the streets, a chronically homeless person can rack up an astonishing tab in public expenses: emergency room visits and overnights in jail may amount to tens of thousands of dollars a year. There’s no data specifically on La Casa yet, but if it’s in line with other Housing First programs, the savings should offset the extra money spent on its design.

“Extra” isn’t the right word, though. Good design, as Tsemberis first grasped, is crucial to instilling a sense of pride in residents of supportive housing, and can help win over the neighbors, who are usually not thrilled to have formerly homeless people living nearby. On my tour of La Casa, Joyce Washington, its operations specialist, pointed out the number plate by one of the apartment doors, an etched plaque of the type you’d see outside a high-end doctor’s office. “Really high class,” she said. This kind of detail would be easy to overlook, but clearly, it makes a difference. According to Washington, visitors often assume La Casa is an extension of Highland Park.

What’s so unusual about La Casa is that the architects’ desire for a standout building was matched—perhaps exceeded—by the city’s. Jim Spearman, the project manager for Studio Twenty Seven, praised officials at DHS and the D.C. Department of General Services for believing in high-quality design, and said they “didn’t take the easy way out” when corners could have been cut. Lisa Franklin-Kelly of DHS agreed: “Every meeting, we reminded them they had to win [a design award].” They got their wish. La Casa has scooped up a bunch, including the prestigious national housing award conferred by the American Institute of Architects.

It’s important to note that as a solution to homelessness, Housing First, and by extension La Casa, has strict limits. Housing First only addresses the chronically homeless—a small subset of the larger homeless population. For the thousands of D.C. residents who need emergency shelter each year and wind up in CCNV, D.C. General, or local motels, there is no La Casa waiting to take them in.

Yet D.C.’s failure to provide adequate temporary and transitional housing shouldn’t be held against La Casa, which serves a different need. The project is a rare, heartening example of what happens when great design and enlightened policy converge. As the architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable famously wrote of the Midland Marine Building, a ’60s skyscraper in Manhattan: “Sometimes we do it right.” La Casa is a far more modest building, but a powerful achievement in its own way. D.C. did it right this time.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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