Affordable housing design gets complex
Regardless of the recession, the Portland city government is going full steam ahead with building affordable housing.
Portland's 2016 housing bond dedicated $258.4 million in general obligation bonds to the development of 1,300 units of affordable housing for low-income households. Now 10 projects are in predevelopment for 1,494 total affordable housing units.
The design of such housing has changed since the 20th century when architects were still enthralled with Bauhaus and Brutalism and designed boxes that paid little attention to context.
The community goals contained in the bond policy framework include preventing displacement, advancing racial equity and making a tangible impact on ending homelessness. These ideas are gospel among architects, too.
One place such ideas took hold were in the 1997 book "Good Neighbors: Affordable Family Housing" (Design For Living), which showed examples of good affordable housing.
Many of the examples in the first book show how porches and small courtyards, taken from the American vernacular, promote community far better than tall boxes and windswept plazas. Built in 1994, the Nuevo Amanecer (New Dawn) apartments in Woodburn are one example of rowhouses with plazas that work well for nontransient agricultural workers.
Blackland transitional housing in Austin, Texas, also is cited, not least for the fact that it took eight years to plan and build. https://www.transitionalhousing.org/li/blackland_transitional_housing_austin
The University of Oregon School of Architecture & Environment Design for Spatial Justice Initiative is producing Good Neighbors II, which it calls "a richly illustrated guide to affordable housing in the U.S." Karen Kubey, an urbanist and Fellow in Design for Spatial Justice of the University of Oregon, convened a panel to look at affordable housing case studies, working with Diana Moosman of MWA Architects in Portland.
The case studies in Good Neighbors II include Portland's St. Francis Park Apartments (MWA Architects), Midtown in Jackson, Mississippi (Duvall Decker Architects), 515 Blake Avenue in
Brooklyn, New York (Curtis + Ginsberg Architects), and Keauhou Lane in Honolulu, Hawaii (Hi.arch.y llp).
The St. Francis Park Apartments at 1177 S.E. Stark St., Portland, are nearby the large central east side homeless camp that runs along Southeast 11th and 12th avenues. The location is on the edge of industrial land in the trendy Belmont district.
St. Francis Church has long ministered to the homeless. It keeps the section of land it owns between the church and the apartment fence open to the public, and there is a space for people to sit, a Portland Loo and a fountain.
The apartment building's communal rooms, which include a lounge and laundry rooms, are clean and bright. The building has a skybridge that brings light into the hallways. The courtyard has a vegetable garden tended by residents.
In a Design Week discussion panelists and UO students looked at affordable housing as it stands in the 2020s.
Travis Phillips, director of Community Development Housing at Catholic Charities of Oregon, has worked in housing design and construction for nearly 20 years. The charity deals with some of the neediest cases that even government can't reach, including the elderly, mentally ill and chronically homeless people.
Phillips stressed that it's as much the services that come with a building as the building stock itself that make it work. They have drop-in centers for homeless outreach, which can lead to other services.
"Then they can take the support that they've gotten from our service programs, and leverage that for stability once they're in housing and become stable and productive tenants," Phillips said. He added that although the bonds and city taxes have been passed, "It takes easily two to three years to get an affordable housing project from a concept to a development that folks can get into."
Yes In My Back Yard
One Design Week panelist, Akasha Lawrence Spence, is a designer and a politician. She represents District 36 in the Oregon state Legislature and is the founder and principal designer at Fifth Element. Affordable housing has changed in her lifetime. Spence said neighborhood associations used to fight affordable housing proposals.
"Nimbyism" (Not In My Back Yard) used to be a thing. Nowadays, when you go to a neighborhood association meeting, people are very excited about an affordable housing project. The most predominant thing that has changed in the last few years is not the need for affordable housing, but who needs it," she said.
It's no longer just low- and extremely low-income Portlanders and Oregonians.
"It's now young professionals who have, quote unquote, living-wage jobs who are saddled with student loan debt and unable to afford the types of housing that was promised to them by this American dream. You're seeing some communities turn the corner on it, because it's their kids. It's people that look like them that now need affordable housing," Lawrence Spence said.
The eviction moratorium is set to expire, she added, and this is going to "coalesce into a new kind of housing crisis of a magnitude of which our state has never seen before. It's those same neighbors and people who have been resistant because they want to preserve a historical character that is rooted in racism and exclusion and segregation."
'Moments of community'
Dave Otte, a partner at Holst Architecture, www.holstarc.com, said architectural dreams are not limited to bridges, skyscrapers and cathedrals.
"I enjoy designing affordable housing because we're designing homes for people," Otte said. "We spend so much time in our homes, it's important that everybody have good design and not just people who can afford it."
Otte said affordable housing design can be formulaic, but that's because the formula works.
One way Holst tries to keep it interesting is to "focus on where you can have the most impact, by keeping some things very simple but then having other things that can be exuberant or be really special places for communities."
The Portland City Council passed the residential infill project, which extends and exceeds the requirements of House Bill 2001, which ends single-family zoning across the state. There's now a big push to think of housing just not just as one- and two-bedroom apartments, but consider co-housing models. "The new zoning code that allows all sorts of different duplexes triplexes, quads … the missing middle housing," Otte said.
He said he tries to create "moments of community" for residents. "That's the subtext of St. Francis, how when you're walking through the hallway you can visually connect and orient to the outside, or you round a point and have a place where there's a community library. It's to create opportunities for people to pause outside the elevator and get to know their neighbors."
Travis Phillips, of Catholic Charities of Oregon, said of the St. Francis Park apartments: "The proximity to the rest of the neighborhood has been the motivation for the development in the first place, understanding that homelessness has definitely had some congregated in that area. It was very apparent that the need was there for housing for some of the lowest-income folks.
"Many of the residents who are moving into housing from homelessness really have some unique challenges with the volume of homelessness that's on the street next to them. That leads to people needing some higher level of service for support, as well as management."
Having still-homeless people right outside their door makes it hard, along with nearby drug use and criminal activity. And then there's "survivor complex."
Phillips said that for people who have moved from the street into transitional housing "there's a desire to take care of your friends that were in your community when you've been out on the street. It's like 'Well, I want to invite them in because they're my support network, and I want to take care of them.' But that potentially creates lease issues."
The building management has to support residents and protect them so that their housing is stable. It helps to have all entryways clearly visible to see who's coming and going.
Architects think about trauma-informed spaces in their designs. This means spaces that don't trigger past trauma.
"Trauma-informed design is a term that's been becoming very popular, but the ideas behind it aren't really anything new," Otte said. Wayfinding is important, "so that you know where you're supposed to go, and where you're not supposed to go," as is "having connection to nature as much as possible, whether it's daylight or access to views, just creating environments that aren't jarring or visually upsetting."
Traumas vary, however, so the architect needs to know the population profile before building, say, a sheltered hallway, which can feel different to different people.
Lawrence Spence added that "good design" is based in Eurocentric values. At PCC Cascades in North Portland, in the spaces that feel open and exposed, "a lot of the students of color feel unwelcome and exposed."
Diana Moosman of MWA Architects, designer of the St. Francis Park Apartments, added that services are as important as the housing units themselves. "Most places now provide case management within the building, so there is someone there who will go to your unit and meet with you one-on-ne to kind of help with case management. Those support services are really, really important to success."
Affordable housing design guide
"Good Neighbors II" will be a comprehensive guide to affordable housing design in the United States, updating the seminal 1997 publication of the same title.
With illustrated and detailed case studies from around the country, the book is being edited by Karen Kubey in collaboration with the original authors, R. Thomas Jones, Michael Pyatok and William Pettus, and through research with University of Oregon students.
Kubey is one of six inaugural Visiting Faculty Fellows in Design for Spatial Justice at the University of Oregon whose research and teaching look at how social justice shows up in the built environment.
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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