Shelter as a Human Right - Sofia Borges

Top photo: Buddy Bleckley. Bottom photos: Tommi Cahill

Top photo: Buddy Bleckley. Bottom photos: Tommi Cahill

Everybody benefits from having a little bit more humanity.
— Sofia Borges

Shelter has always been, and will always be, one of our critical human needs for survival. So I would be remiss if in a podcast seeking to uncover the core of how we were meant to live as human beings, I focused on cabins, tiny homes, and other stylish back-to-basics dwellings for upscale urbanites while ignoring an untenable truth I witness every day: That there are untold thousands of people living in our cities who, in fact, have no shelter at all. In Los Angeles alone, where the homeless population increased a staggering 23 percent in the past year and more than 50,000 people sleep on the streets every night, we are in the midst of a homelessness (really, houselessness) epidemic unprecedented in the course of human history. How have we, as a modern society, allowed homelessness to persist on this unimaginable scale? And how can we, as a modern society, begin to rectify it? 

This is the focus of my episode with LA-based writer, designer and architect Sofia Borges, director of the prestigious Martin Architecture and Design Workshop (MADWORKSHOP) and a faculty member at the USC School of Architecture, where she recently spearheaded the school’s first-ever advanced topics design studio on the homeless crisis in LA. The resulting project, Homes for Hope (a light-filled, rapidly deployable 92-square-foot modular microhouse for the homeless that could easily work as a backyard studio for the minimalist design enthusiast) won a 2017 Fast Company World Changing Ideas Award. Sofia has also authored and edited more than two dozen books on architecture and design, and as you will hear, is a true urban visionary. Here, she speaks passionately about the manifold possibilities for Homes for Hope, the scourge of NIMBYism, and the call for us all to be part of a sea change to combat unsustainable human suffering everywhere. 

Here’s the run-down of our conversation: 

  • Sofia’s global and diverse upbringing in Los Angeles, Mexico, Cuba and South America

  • Earthquake preparedness: an architect’s perspective

  • Sofia’s photography background and why she became an architect

  • MoMA and the problems with modern architecture

  • “I’m a sucker for history”: Why Sofia would never live in a brand-new building

  • The importance of culture, light and access to nature in a structure

  • Los Angeles as a city of haves and have-nots and the current homelessness epidemic

  • Why are so many people on the streets?

  • NIMBYism

  • Chronic homelessness, permanent supportive housing, and the need for an intermediate solution

  • Designing for the gap: MADWORKSHOP’s Homes for Hope

  • “This looks just like a place where I could live”

  • Bringing the Toms One for One business model to the homelessness crisis

  • Using the units for student housing and disaster relief housing: “We’ve even had inquiries for boutique hotels”

  • Homeboy Industries, and the homeless pop-up village in the works

  • How to mass produce the solution

  • “It’s cheaper to house people than to leave them on the streets”

  • Why Los Angeles is the proving ground for the homelessness crisis

  • Our cities at the tipping point: Sofia’s vision for our urban future

  • Preserving the history of our built culture, and why it matters

Your can learn more about Sofia’s work and connect with her via her website and on her personal Instagram page. MADWORKSHOP is also on Facebook and on Instagram along with its website, here. And be sure to check out Sofia’s newest book, Give Me Shelter: Architecture Takes on the Homeless Crisis.

If you enjoyed this show, subscribe on iTunes so you don’t miss the next one (and don’t forget to leave a rating and review). The theme music is by Paul Damian Hogan. Want to chime in on this episode or have an idea for a future show? Connect with me via my Instagram page, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

A few of Sofia's books: