DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Darrien Brown smiles wide as he rolls his wheelchair across the lobby of the Gateways Apartments. He’s soaking in the details of what will be his new home: The fresh carpets, the smooth brown leather chairs and couches, an outdoor courtyard in which greenery flutters in the wind. 

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“Aw, man. It’s hard to describe what this is like,” Brown, 51, said. “It’s just a new beginning. It gives me a good reason to be more responsible with my life and what I do.” 

Homeless since 1986, Brown spent the last two years at the Midnight Mission in Skid Row, trying to figure out the next phase of his life. The apartment complex at 505 S. San Pedro St., which had a grand opening ceremony on Thursday, Nov. 7, has opened the door for him to finally settle down in a place of his own.

The $28 million Gateways Apartments, developed by SRO Housing Corporation, gives Brown and 106 other formerly homeless individuals private apartments along with a suite of in-building social services such as job counseling, medical assistance and mental health counseling. There’s a property manager on site and 24/7 security monitoring.

While the aim is to give residents a safety net, form was just as important as function when SRO Housing set out to transform a dusty, razor wire-enclosed lot into modern apartments. The design by DBB Architects has clean, modern lines that wouldn’t look out of place in Santa Monica. Large windows in the six-story building look out onto the neighborhood below. Glass-paneled railings on outdoor walkways add a sense of openness. 

The building takes advantage of a range of sustainable materials and technologies. Photovoltaic panels jut out from the roof, generating both electricity and a sharp architectural detail. In the central courtyard, a deep planter doubles as a rainwater catch system, which will recycle water for landscape irrigation. There’s a solar hot water system, as well as charging stations for electric vehicles in the 53-space underground parking garage. 

All these elements allowed the project to be certified as a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold building. Gateways is the first SRO Housing project to be designated as such. 

Amenities abound on the inside. There are offices for social services and an all-purpose classroom that will have computer workstations. A community room features more leather couches and contains a full-size kitchen, stocked with gleaming stainless-steel appliances, that can be used for group events or parties. Dark-wood furniture adds a touch of elegance. Only one element is missing: A flat-screen TV for residents had not been installed by early last week. 

Anita Nelson, CEO of SRO Housing, said she wanted Gateways to feature everything that people would find in a market-rate apartment complex elsewhere.

“We don’t want it to look like low-income housing, and we wanted to keep clear of anything that looks institutional,” she said. “We wanted people to be able to bring family or friends over and be proud.”

That mentality extends to the apartments. Averaging about 350 square feet, the studios come with all the essentials: a bed with colorful new linens, a full kitchen, a bathroom, a small dining table and chairs. 

Though it’s a simple setup, Nelson said that walking into a new home can be an overwhelming moment for residents. 

“Sometimes, residents will sleep on the floor instead of in the bed. We have to tell them, ‘No, this is your bed. It’s clean and brand new, don’t worry,’” she said. “They’re not used to having a real place to sleep.” 

Residents can stay at Gateways as long as they want. The rent works on a sliding scale, with most people paying about 30% of whatever income they earn. Still, Joseph Corcoran, SRO Housing’s director of planning and housing development, said inhabitants sometimes fear that their living arrangement could change without warning. 

“Some worry that their apartment will be taken away from them. That’s how much they can’t believe that they are here for the long haul,” he said. 

Nelson points out that the long haul is the whole point of housing complexes like Gateways.

“A person can really start rebuilding their life here — go to school, get a job,” she said. “And they have a place to come at the end of the day.” 

The Work Never Ends

As with most new low-income housing complexes in Downtown, demand far exceeded supply. Approximately 500 people applied for the 107 apartments at Gateways, which is the third-largest complex run by SRO Housing after the Rosslyn Hotel and Ford Apartments. The swollen demand reminds Corcoran that his work is never over.

“We’re proud of what we’ve built here, but it’s only a drop in the bucket,” he said. 

To help streamline the waitlist, SRO Housing consulted the Skid Row Coordinated Entry System, a partnership between the United Way and multiple city and county departments that identifies the most vulnerable, chronically homeless candidates for permanent housing. That helps expedite the process for some individuals, but in general it takes about six to eight months to process a waitlist of 500 people and find them homes, according to Nelson. 

Corcoran hopes to begin developing more properties as soon as possible, but he said funding is always a challenge; the money for SRO Housing projects come from multiple government and private-sector entities, all with their own guidelines and bureaucratic requirements. 

“This is the hardest type of property to fund and keep running,” said Corcoran. 

The task grew more difficult when the Community Redevelopment Agency was shuttered in 2012. Up to that point, the CRA had provided acquisition funding to SRO Housing, meaning the developer could snag a property and begin planning a project and funding on the fly instead of being stuck in escrow for a year. 

As for Brown, he doesn’t know how long he’ll stay at Gateways. For now, he looks forward to going back to school and eventually getting a job, perhaps as a nutritionist — his high blood sugar, after all, has made him a bit of a dietary expert.

“I can finally buy groceries and have a place to make my own food, stuff that’s better for me,” Brown said with a laugh.

The opportunity to make a real life for himself has been a long time coming, Brown said. He’s not going to take it for granted, and he looks forward to the day when he can lock the door behind him and hand the key to another person who needs a home.

eddie@downtownnews.com

Twitter: @eddiekimx

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2013