The Architecture & Design Of Affordable Housing

May 18, 2015

“We shape our dwellings, and afterwards our dwellings shape us.” Winston Churchill said that in an address to Parliament in 1944, and it remains true today. As part of our station-wide series, “The First Decade,” we’re looking at how the environmental and familial circumstances a child’s first ten years can influence – even determine -- their later lives. Today, housing, neighborhoods and the built environment.  

Poor Quality Housing = Poor Health  

“We know that poor health stems from your environment in many ways and unfortunately a lot of poor quality housing throughout the United States has been impacting health. And what we see is that it’s primarily impacting young children and older seniors who are more susceptible to poor air indoor quality.”

We know that poor health stems from your environment in many ways and unfortunately a lot of poor quality housing throughout the United States has been impacting health.

That’s Jamie Blosser, founder of the Sustainable Native Communities Collaborative and associate at Atkin Olshin Schade, echoing findings from a spate of recent studies that have quantified how childhood poverty, specifically  living in a poor neighborhood, influences cognitive abilities, adult employment,  earnings, and behavioral and health problems -- including depression, asthma, diabetes, and heart disease -- at higher-than-average rates. We reached Jamie Blosser and Kathy Dorgan, two prominent practitioners of community and public interest design last week, just after they’d put together a panel on community-based design at the American Institute of Architects conference in Atlanta. 

Asthma Linked to Home Environments

Jamie highlighted some of the panel's findings.

“One of the data points is that 20-30% of asthma attacks are linked to home conditions that can be avoided. The other thing we try to promote is activities so it’s not just indoor air quality; it’s getting people to be outside more, to be walking around more. For instance climbing three to four floors per day is associated with a reduced stroke risk of 29%. We’re sort of on the tip of the sort of metrics that will change a lot of what we do.”

Practitioners now use the term affordable housing to distinguish their work from the low-income housing units of the past. Those projects have mostly been torn down to establish more human scale housing. Still, being raised in poor housing in a low income area can directly affect a person’s opportunities. 

Affordable housing design in San Francisco, CA.
Credit Global Site Plans / http://bit.ly/1Gjxq2T

Income Opportunity  

Here’s Kathy Dorgan, an architect and urban planner who employs participatory design practices, which she says can achieve communities of choice and justice.

“There’s so many example of that, there’s a recent study out of Harvard that really looked at where children live and what kind of opportunities come their way as a basis of where they live. And so for example if someone lived in New Hampshire in an average community, average opportunity and they moved to Baltimore--which has recently been in the news--which is not an area of high opportunity, their long term prospects for the household income, for a boy, would decrease by 1.39% for every year that they lived in Baltimore. And so the lifetime effect of that would be if someone lived there their whole childhood they might make a third of what they would make if they’d stayed in a community of average opportunity.”

Construction was completed in 2009 on I-Sah’Din’-Dii, a tax credit project of 30 new homes and a community center at the Mescalero Apache Reservation near Ruidoso, NM. The project has been hailed as a model of sustainable, affordable housing. The project was designed to exceed the New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority Green Guidelines, and was the top-placing applicant in the 2007 Tax Credit Application round.
Credit Atkin Olshin Schade Architects / http://bit.ly/1HcCJNM

Rural Poverty  

But that does not happen only in inner cities, like Baltimore.

“When we look at poverty 85% of counties in the United States that are high poverty counties are non-metropolitan, so we know that rural poverty is a huge issue, and unfortunately, with more information and more data about location and how important location is in affordable housing in providing access to transit and employment and services, we know that rural regions are even more vulnerable because they are more remote and do not have that access. So we see higher costs of living, but we also see higher vulnerabilities, I think, without that access.”

We know that rural regions are even more vulnerable because they are more remote and do not have that access [to transit, employment, and services].

A study from the Urban Institute looking at low income residents in Chicago and Portland found kids, even pre-teen kids, at risk of experiencing school failure. They engage in risky sexual activity, and suffer from poor mental health. But while these stats may be bleak, not all low-income communities are dead ends, there are places known as “opportunity rich”, “high opportunity communities” that encourage more stability and supervision for children through better school systems and access to transportation. Kathy Dorgan:

“High opportunities are often high income communities, but not always, so we have a great variance between communities with similar income profiles and the amount of opportunity that they afford to the residents. There’s a lot of things that lead to that, a lot of it’s trust. There have been a lot of studies of communities that work together better that trust each other, provide more opportunity for all of their residents, high or low income, communities with less segregation. But it’s also a matter of public policy and we’ve seen great examples in Massachusetts where they’ve moved to much higher performing schools in many low income communities and that’s of course immediately made those higher opportunity communities. I live in Connecticut where we have much more disparate and the highest of the nation difference in income in achievement between communities. So that difference in achievement and communities in Connecticut makes it a much worse place for a poor person, or anyone to live than our neighboring state of Massachusetts that’s addressed that by policy.”

Bridging the Gap  

As practitioners of community and public interest design, Jamie Blosser and Kathy Dorgan aim to bridge that gap.Again, Kathy Dorgan:

“So, the important thing I think here is to provide every resident with opportunities and access to those opportunities. And there’s a lot of ways to achieve that, and that may be by mixing incomes within a specific development, it may be by mixing incomes and opportunities and resources within a larger neighborhood. And so I think it’s every community has important structures and resources for providing opportunity, and it’s therefore important to do real design within communities to understand the existing conditions and to understand the opportunities there. Having said that, I think it’s really important not to have large areas of segregated incomes and segregated opportunities.”      

Not segregating communities based on incomes or race: a lesson learned, perhaps, by the public housing fails of the postwar era. Think of those massive urban high rises, isolated on the outskirts of cities – places like the infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, built with great promise in 1956, only to be demolished in the mid-70s. Or the Robert Taylor homes in Chicago, widely considered to be a low point for American urban renewal. While it’s easy enough to look back on those failures in hindsight, will today’s designers make similar mistakes?  Nadia Anderson, is an Associate Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at Iowa State University. We started our conversation with the public housing fails of the post war era, and asked her, what did those planners & architects get wrong?