The Importance of Beauty in Affordable Housing

At buildings like the Schermerhorn, large ground-floor windows, active use, and proper lighting help a building contribute to the feeling of a safer street. (Credit: Ennead Architects)

In downtown Brooklyn, The Schermerhorn apartment building boasts a facade of five translucent glass “towers,” fabricated with post-consumer waste glass and environmentally-efficient glazing, designed by Ennead Architects. On the ground floor, retail and lobby spaces open to the sidewalk, while a multipurpose room provides space for tenant activities, and also serves as home to a local ballet company. All of it was constructed on a cantilever, directly over subway tunnels carrying three subway lines.

And above? More than a hundred housing units for formerly homeless individuals and people living with HIV/AIDS, plus 107 more housing units affordable for households up to 60 percent of area median income or $56,430 for a family of three — in a zip code where the median income is $109,472.

“Great design is part of our philosophy,” says Brenda Rosen, president and CEO of Breaking Ground, the 28-year old supportive housing nonprofit that developed the Schermerhorn. “Having a beautiful place to live creates a sense of pride and helps residents regain their stability and dignity.”

One of Breaking Ground’s biggest tasks, she says, is to break down the stigma attached to housing for formerly homeless people. “Too often, the vision is something institutional and chaotic,” Rosen says. “What we build is the exact opposite of that.”

Offering communities examples of good, contextual design, she says, is also crucial for gaining support to develop supportive housing in neighborhoods. “We design so that you walk down the block and don’t know if you’re walking by a market-rate building or a Breaking Ground building,” Rosen says. “That’s our goal, to seamlessly fit into the neighborhood we’re building in.”

Last night at the Center for Architecture, city planners, architects, developers, and housing advocates sat down to discuss designing affordable housing in New York City. The Schermerhorn was on the agenda, as one of the seven case studies in “Designing New York: Quality Affordable Housing,” a new report co-produced by the NYC Public Design Commission, the AIA New York Housing Committee, and The Fine Arts Federation of New York. The 96-page report breaks down guiding principles for design considerations in affordable housing, from massing to open space.

Five out of seven case study projects are defined by the city as 100 percent affordable, with most units affordable for households up to 60 percent of area median income. Some projects included supportive housing, some included housing reserved for formerly homeless individuals, for people living with HIV/AIDS, or reserved for households on the waiting list for public or Section 8 housing. Six of the seven case studies featured public dollars, either grants or subsidized loans. Only one project included any market-rate housing.

The impetus to set best design practices came largely after Mayor Bill de Blasio increased his Housing New York goal to preserve or create affordable housing, from 200,000 units to 300,000 units by 2024. In 2016, New York City Council also approved a range of zoning changes collectively called “Zoning for Quality and Affordability,” to modernize outdated zoning rules the city felt had not kept pace with best practices for design and construction.

“[Zoning for Quality and Affordability] laid the groundwork,” says Justin Garrett Moore, executive director of the Public Design Commission. “This current effort really gets to a different level of design detail and scope that affects the quality of housing.”

The changing role of the Public Design Commission also led to the report. While privately-developed affordable housing has historically been built on land the city sells or transfers to developers, the city has increasingly decided to retain ownership of sites and offer developers long-term ground leases instead. And so the Public Design Commission, established by city charter to review all projects on city-owned land, gained a larger role reviewing new affordable housing.

“The Design Commission doesn’t really have a long track record of reviewing affordable housing design,” says Garrett Moore, noting that in the past the Public Design Commission reviewed parks, libraries, and other community spaces. “This research and effort was to make sure our commission has good resources and references for what we want to achieve, and for different city agencies to have a reference for what can be built on these public sites.”

The commission also collaborated with the Department of City Planning, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, and the NYC Economic Development Corporation to create a more streamlined review process to review projects for affordable housing on city-owned sites — also laid out in the new report. One project, on a former youth detention center, is currently making its way through the new streamlined process.

“We’ve had to tackle the process from a number of places to build understanding that we are very aggressive about the number of [affordable] units, but it doesn’t mean we’re okay building boxes that are not sitting well with the community,” says Claudia Herasme, director of urban design for the Department of City Planning.

To come up with “guiding principles” for the report, the authors looked at examples of affordable development around the world. Last night’s event coincided with a Center for Architecture exhibit on innovative social housing across Europe. “We brought this exhibition over so we could use the change with the Public Design Commission as an opportunity to broaden the discussion of affordable housing design,” says Ben Prosky, executive director of the Center for Architecture and AIA New York.

In New York, urban designers have moved away from the “monoculture of isolated, standalone housing complex,” says Dan Kaplan, senior partner for FXCollaborative. The architecture firm was highlighted in the report for its work on Navy Green, in Brooklyn, a block-long development where different housing prototypes are knit together by a common green space. “The work we’re doing in housing is about economic diversity and ownership typology all intertwined and connected back into the city,” Kaplan adds.

The design principles covered in the report touch on early stages of development (site planning and massing), exterior elements (materiality, facade, windows and doors), the ground floor condition of buildings, and living conditions (circulation and open space).

Karen Kubey, an urbanist specializing in housing and health who co-authored of the report, says these principles are intended not just for designers, but for communities. “It gives them the tools to demand excellent design,” she says. “It’s something you can literally hold in your hand.”

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