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‘It was more of a fact-finding mission,’ says FlyawayHomes CEO of White House visit

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Federal officials from several agencies, including FEMA, HHS, and the justice department, toured the company’s housing for the homeless in South LA

A bright green and gray apartment building made from shipping containers is shown in an LA neighborhood with smaller houses in the background.
FlyawayHome’s shipping container apartments are located in South Los Angeles.
Courtesy of FlyawayHomes

The team at FlyawayHomes got less than 24 hours notice: A federal delegation was headed to Los Angeles the next day to assess the city’s escalating homeless crisis and wanted to tour the apartments they’d built out of shipping containers.

Could they show the officials their South Los Angeles complex that houses 32 formerly homeless Angelenos?

“We got a little less notice than the mayor’s office, I think,” says Michael Parks, the company’s CEO.

The next afternoon, officials from multiple federal agencies—including FEMA, the justice department, and health and human services—were standing outside the project at 820 West Colden Avenue.

It was an opportunity, Parks says, to not only show the Trump administration that Los Angeles needs more housing, but also to highlight how zoning changes and voter-approved funding initiatives have put Los Angeles at the “forefront of innovative solutions” for building permanent housing with “wraparound,” on-site services.

“If we can get people to focus on more quality housing, faster and cheaper, and get people to agree that that’s where we need to focus our efforts and support, that’s the best way to ameliorate a big part of the current crisis,” he says.

It’s still not totally clear why federal officials were here. Details about the delegation’s trip Los Angeles have been cobbled together by various media reports—and few LA officials have gone on the record about what happened.

But the group’s itinerary, which included a visit to an unnamed FAA property outside LA reportedly being considered as a “relocation” facility, raised alarms with local advocates. Others, meanwhile, have speculated that the visit might have been a political stunt.

“We’re not rounding people up or anything yet,” a senior White House official told the Washington Post. The newspaper reported this week that the president has “directed aides to launch a major crackdown on homelessness in California.”

Last night, while addressing the House Republican Conference, Trump might have made the visit’s intentions clear: “In the not too distant future, you are going to see we are going to step in. We are going to give them notice. In fact, we gave them notice today. Clean it up. You got to do something. Can’t have it. These are our great American cities and they’re an embarrassment.”

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has asked for federal assistance, putting some of the blame for the city’s surge in homelessness on the federal government, which he says “has woefully underfunded our housing safety net.”

Asked if the delegation seemed interested in looking for models like Flyaway that the federal government might be able to fund, Parks said: “I think it was more of a fact-finding mission.”

Flyaway is trying to ramp up production of shipping container homes, which its founders believe can be built more cheaply and more quickly than traditional permanent supportive housing. It’s piecing together public and private money to make that happen.

It leases its Colden Avenue development to The People Concern, a local social services agency that helps tenants find housing subsidies and provides on-site services, which includes everything from substance abuse treatment to help with budgeting and nutrition. (Tenants who are not eligible for subsidies pay $550 per month in rent).

“It was a pretty quick tour,” Parks says. “I think they appreciated what they saw.”

— Curbed urbanism editor Alissa Walker contributed to this report