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Sustainability looks different through door of new efficiency apartment

Denise Woodard and her new key.
Molly Peterson/KPCC
Denise Woodard and her new key.

We've been hearing this week about the way various people imagine a home that's environmentally sustainable. On the edge of downtown Los Angeles, KPCC's Molly Peterson has toured the New Carver apartments and talked to its architect. In the final story of our series, she visits a woman who's making that building near the I-10 her first real home in a year.

The small room is squeaky clean. Denise Woodard's mattress is still rolled up. Sponges and air freshener from the 99-cent store rest in plastic bags on the floor. "See how cute? I love it. Boom! Hey microwave, that cute, right?" Before she gets to any of that, the 55-year-old single mom will decide how to arrange the furniture she's been given – including a square table that folds in half to save space.

She's in the New Carver apartments – newly opened by the Skid Row Housing Trust for disabled and recently homeless people who need on-site support services. Her door opens onto a circular courtyard. "You can see straight up to the sky. You won't see no cars or freeways, I really love it."

Denise Woodard says she's still getting situated. She already knows one neighbor, though: a young man she greets as he gets off the elevator.

"It was good seeing you!"

"All right. I'll see you around."

The young man remembers her from the downtown mission where she offered free meals. He was homeless. She was volunteering while she lived in an emergency shelter after a housing dispute in the place she lived for 20 years. "I was at New Image on Figueroa and Manchester. And I been there for a year," she says, careful to add, "The program's a 4 to 6 month program, however they do extend it. And they had a couple of freezes on Section 8. The cards were stacked against me, but as you can see, God dealt me a new hand in life and I intend to play the ace of spades."

As her daughter, now 20 years old, grew up, Woodard held down two jobs. One involved running up and down to the skyboxes in the Staples Center. Then her landlord hiked her rent. She, her mother, and her daughter split up.

As her mom’s ovarian cancer has worsened, Woodard’s seen her grow more isolated. She was struck by her mother's vulnerability when she took her mom to the barber last week to cut off her hair. "The barber was shaking – he always does her hair she had a beautiful salt and pepper hair. And he was shaking as he cut it off and I could see her skin lying on her scalp."

Woodard got word she could live in the New Carver apartments last week. Last night was the first night she spent here – she's stayed with her mother at the hospital. She's still finding out about amenities like the garden and the compact fluorescent light bulbs that flick on more slowly than regular ones. "It's very good to have energy efficient stuff, it's excellent," she says. "I don't know too much about the solar system and all that but it's good to have. But the warm lovin' from the staff – those are the things I look for."

For most of her adult life, Denise Woodard has made a point of handling her own business. Beyond the novelty of a staff that cares, she – unlike the architects and activists who conceived of this space – doesn't offer much of an answer to what makes a home sustainable. After a while, she holds up a flat plastic card – like the kind you get at a hotel.

"I guess just that key," she says softly. "The key to the door. And everything else falls in its place. I'm safe. I'm safe."

Woodard hopes to use this housing and built-in support to get on her feet. That, in turn, could help her take care of her mother – and to volunteer, as she's done before, in the future.