The New Face of Affordable Housing

Feb. 4, 2004
It’s Not What You Think ...
Consider the term affordable housing: “High-quality design and construction,” “pleasing aesthetics,” and “a neighborhood complement” are probably not the first phrases you’d choose as a description. However, affordable multi-family housing has come a long way since the sometimes uninteresting and uninspired designs of the past.Innovative and practical design ideas have emerged throughout the country, receiving both industry praise and public approval. And with these design improvements, affordable housing facilities are now being located in new places. Take a drive down Seattle’s Summit Avenue and you’ll find Cascade Court, an affordable housing complex for families situated next to the landmark Stimson-Green mansion. Near California’s Santa Monica Pier and beaches, you’ll discover The Rick Weiss New Hope Courtyard Apartments, an affordable housing option for households with an HIV-positive member. Today, there are affordable housing options for women, senior citizens, families with ailing members, recent immigrants, struggling artists, growing families, and single-parent households. The less these residents have to worry about the safety, security, and comfort of their living space (a true concern for many affordable housing dwellers), the more time they can devote toward other tasks (like caring for loved ones or finding a job). Like many other types of buildings, today’s affordable housing facilities strive to be resource- and energy-efficient, to maintain a healthy indoor atmosphere, and to be universally accessible. Following are some specific design trends being incorporated into several of today’s affordable multi-family housing facilities …Flexibility/AdaptabilityComplexes that offer many different unit types allow residents to move between apartments as their needs and budgets change – all while maintaining some consistency: the same neighborhood, people, and location.Another concept allowing residents to make moves within the same neighborhood involves combining apartment units. At Hearts United Development Initiative in Chicago, six flat buildings are arranged to allow interchangeable units: Two adjacent one-bedroom flats can be turned into a handicapped-accessible, three-bedroom apartment; two ground-floor, two-bedroom units can become one accessible four-bedroom unit; and ground-level apartments in rowhouse units can merge with duplexes above to meet the needs of a growing family.Incorporating flexible design for hearing/vision impairments is crucial. Non-glare finishes on floors, countertops, and walls; appliances and controls with front-placed knobs and buttons; roll-in showers; and alarms incorporting both audio and visual signals are important elements.Safety/SecuritySurveillance cameras, intercom systems, deadbolt locks, and single public entrances are common nationwide in affordable housing developments. Windows (especially those in ground-floor apartments) that can be partially open while remaining locked is a feature that some multi-family housing facilities are also beginning to include. In some situations, much of a multi-family housing complex’s security comes from the tenant community itself. Developments that are designed with sidewalks, porches, and BBQ/picnic areas encourage residents to get to know one another and to build a community. In fact, neighbors that know each other are more likely to feel responsible for and keep an eye on each others’ possessions, children, etc. AmenitiesResidents in affordable housing may require different types of amenities than those in market-rate apartment complexes. While exercise rooms, community lounges, and swimming pools can be a part of affordable housing complexes, some residents will benefit more from other offerings. Growing trends include community gardens; TV lounges; on-site daycare; GED courses, pre-employment training, and tutoring; and computer labs.General DesignThe U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Affordable Housing Design Advisor lists key ideas and strategies for achieving quality in affordable multi-family housing and provides successful examples of these suggested approaches at work.The goal of many affordable housing projects is this: to design a development that doesn’t look like affordable housing. When city residents pass by the complex, it shouldn’t be distinguishable as “affordable housing.” Creating an affordable housing complex that balances with its surroundings is one of the most vital design components. A facility that complements the neighborhood’s size and shape will help boost acceptance and will emphasize to both residents and citizens that this type of housing is just like anyone else’s. Oftentimes, introducing new shapes, pitches, materials, or colors to a neighborhood only makes a building stand out as something “different.” If designed appropriately, affordable multi-family housing can be located anywhere – in a bustling downtown, in outlying rural areas, or among other residential neighborhoods.Providing a sense of community via design helps residents feel comfortable and more at ease with their surroundings. Providing opportunities and locations for neighbors to meet and converse enhances the quality of life. Breaking large buildings into smaller units or clusters provides residents with a sense of community and can make it easier for them to identify with other tenants. Stairs, elevators, and access corridors should be designed to serve as gathering places, not just as thoroughfares. Good design can also help restore a sometimes much-needed sense of pride and accomplishment. Providing separate entrances to each unit allows tenants the freedom to individualize and personalize the exterior in certain ways, helping make the building feel more like home. Using materials that don’t require repeated or expensive upkeep allows residents to maintain some components themselves, reinforcing to them that the unit they live in is their residence (even if they’re renters).Planning and layout depend on the residents who live in the building. In units designated for those with ill family members, individual washers, dryers, and dishwashers may be important; they can lessen the spread of bacteria and makes it easier for those who don’t want to travel out in public to do daily chores. These residents may also require more storage space to keep medical equipment and supplies on-hand. In a facility designed for growing families, bathrooms that separate sinks from showers may prove important so that more than one person can use the space at a time.Other important design notes:Locate kitchen and living room windows so they look out onto play areas.Test furniture arrangements, outlets, telephone/cable jacks, and light fixture locations to make sure all rooms can be easily furnished and that all jacks/switches are logically placed.Ensure that stairs, elevators, and hallways can tolerate tenants moving furniture without damaging finishes.Make sure residents have a safe and easy path of travel to take trash out to the removal area.Provide well-lit, off-street parking, if possible; avoid outdoor light that shines directly into dwelling units.Designing affordable housing that is attractive, practical, and something your tenants can use as a resource isn’t easy. But by taking these points into consideration, you can provide a facility that citizens welcome and residents can’t wait to come home to.Leah B. Garris ([email protected]) is associate editor at Buildings magazine.

Affordable Housing Provided Via Public Housing
Involving many of the same modern-day design elements as affordable multi-family housing, public housing restoration projects are under way across the United States, with housing authorities working to update, renovate, and rebuild. The Chicago Housing Authority’s (CHA) Plan for Transformation, the largest reconstruction of public housing in America’s history, is a blueprint for positive change. With approximately 25,000 units being rebuilt or restored by the end of 2009, new mixed-income communities will blend public, market-rate, and affordable housing residents. “When you concentrate poverty and leave it alone to its own devices, you instill isolation and a certain amount of distrust into the rest of society. The goal of the mixed-income communities is to just lift the quality of life for our residents,” says Carl Byrd, development manager, CHA. “[Public housing residents] should have access and be treated just the same as any other citizen of Chicago.” With the new Plan, Byrd explains that passersby won’t be able to tell market-rate from public or affordable housing: “They’re all going to be nice units. Compared to what some of our residents are used to, this is going to be a dramatic change for the better.”
The Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) has plans to revitalize its Fisher Housing Development, creating a community of affordable housing for first-time home buyers and renters that is vibrant, secure, attractive, and convenient. The goal is to rebuild the neighborhood that once was there – with small blocks, individual architecture, front porches, and a walkable community – and rid the neighborhood of the poor reputation Fisher Housing Development has obtained. But as zoning ordinances and utility requirements currently stand for new subdivisions in New Orleans, achieving this type of neighborhood won’t be possible. Fortunately, New York City-based Parsons Brinckerhoff, the company designing the housing development, is embarking on a campaign to change the requirements for this particular project. Tom Brooks-Pilling, director of architecture, Parsons Brinckerhoff, explains: “What we want it to be is [this]: When you’re driving down the street, you don’t know if you’re looking at a rental unit, a public housing unit, or a home ownership unit. We want it to be indistinguishable.” Involving the city’s citizens and the current residents of the Fisher Housing Development, Brooks-Pilling has assisted in leading public engagement sessions to obtain the input, advice, and opinions of those who will live in and near the development when it’s completed. “[Residents] don’t want rooms with a dimension of less than 12 feet. They want laundry [facilities] and they want natural gas. They look forward to having a fenced-in yard,” says Brooks-Pilling. “We’ve been working all the way along with them. The principles that you apply to a high-end project apply equally as well to an affordable housing project.”

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