90 rue des sables.
Photo: Wes Tarca
Homelessness in New York can be an intractable problem. Ending homelessness for one person – or a dozen, or 100 – is simple: give them a decent place and surround them with knowledgeable people who are ready to help. This form of human decency is known as supportive housing, and it dates from the early 1980ss, which gave him plenty of time to prove that it works. Those coming out of shelters, prison, foster homes or the streets and into buildings with an in-house counseling service tend to stay home, in treatment and out of trouble. It’s expensive, but it’s cheaper than alternatives.
Supportive housing serves a complex set of groups: those who have been homeless, who suffer from addictions and mental illness, who are living with HIV/AIDS, who have recently left foster care or who are facing to decades of neglect. They have a dizzying array of needs, and meeting them depends on the professionalism of those caring for them – the army of case managers, clinicians, social workers, nurses, doctors, counsellors, therapists and of fundraisers who spend their days keeping the chaos at bay.
Architecture is the other half of supportive housing’s strength. “The built environment is the hardware, and the social environment is the software,” says Kimberly Rollings, a researcher at the University of Michigan who focuses on the interplay between architecture and healthcare. Pervasive but non-intrusive security, warm lighting, conscientious maintenance, unobstructed hallways – these essentials have measurable impacts on residents’ ability to avoid crises. Common areas should be really happyand not just in the reluctant way of a vinyl-floored playroom with a few primary-colored throw pillows and a hyperactive TV.
A pair of new projects, 90 Sands in Dumbo and El Borinquen in the Bronx, make it clear how crucial it is, when you get your first master key in many years (or ever), that it opens a door to a private, sunny, safe and serene space. These are qualities you can’t take for granted in this town of “comfortable” $4,000 studio apartments with brick wall views and entomological roommates. A high rent sometimes buys you a slightly more pleasant form of misery; Truly low-rent living can be hazardous to your health as NYCHA buildings rot, gas lines blow, and facades shear off buildings that are practically held together with duct tape. Moving New Yorkers less fortunate and more fragile from one grim setting to another only compounds their problems and those of everyone else.
At 90 Sands, nonprofit developer Breaking Ground has purchased a 30-story building dormitory of Jehovah’s Witnesses and renovated it into nearly 500 apartments, a combination of supportive housing and regular rent-regulated housing. Sandwiched between the ramps of the Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan Bridge in one of the city’s most expensive real estate neighborhoods, 90 Sands is an unsightly large slab built in 1992 to house 1,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses, including meals came from a huge kitchen in the basement. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society has grasped the inspiring power of a good view, however, and the compact studios (plus an observation level) have generous windows that overlook the vastness of lower Manhattan, the harbor and the back. -Brooklyn country. Beyer Blinder Belle, a company with a long history in social housing and renovation, has figured out how to leave the best bits alone and make the most of spacious common areas, large arched windows and high ceilings. W Architecture and Planning preceded it with a landscaped plaza that acts as a communal front porch and an invitation to passers-by: pause, sit down, check your phone or chat.
The bulky tower might be intimidating to new residents accustomed to measuring their personal space in square inches. Some research suggests that people do better in more intimate settings, but Brenda Rosen, president and CEO of Breaking Ground, believes in greatness. “The economy is working better. We can have a 24/7 secure front desk and a staff to tenant ratio that allows for great attention to detail.
Still, projects like this have a lot to convince. New residents can be overwhelmed with both unusual freedoms and the responsibilities that come with signing a lease. Staff can encourage (but not force) them to take advantage of available services; the design should draw them into the unfamiliar experience of feeling at home. A new structure full of struggling tenants must also appease neighbors who fear their streets will be taken over by sidewalk mumblers and become a magnet for drug dealers. The organizers are ready with reassuring dataespecially that supportive housing does not depress real estate values (not long term, anyway). But even rational fears have emotional components, and that’s where design comes in – to express what research can’t. “These are beautiful buildings, and that’s intentional,” says Pascale Leon, executive director of New York’s umbrella organization Supportive Housing Network. “To people who have lived through years of trauma and instability, they affirm their dignity and their humanity.” Architecture doesn’t have to be radical or expensive to communicate joy and pride. Or, to put it another way: when you’re rich, a beautiful setting is an optional convenience; when you have next to nothing, they are an essential ingredient of that most precious resource, optimism.
Designing and building new supportive housing means trying to get the most architecture out of every penny. That doesn’t make it cheap. Breaking Ground spent $170 million to buy the hotel and another $78 million to renovate it. On-site counselling, offered by another organization, the Center for Urban Community Services, costs $17,500 per person per year. It’s all still peanuts compared to the astronomical cost of a year of incarceration at Rikers Island. “We’ve always had to prove that supportive housing is not only the right thing to do, but also the profitable thing to do,” says Cynthia Stuart, COO of the Supportive Housing Network. She cites studies that have been conducted across the country in various contexts, all pointing in the same direction. Nearly half of the inmates in America’s jails and prisons suffer from mental illness, and we spend fortunes helping no one and fixing nothing. For a subset of the most severely affected, homelessness is “a solvable problem”, says Leone. “We know the antidote”: many more than 90 Sands.
Supportive housing is a small but growing part of the battle against the overlapping crises of homelessness and mental illness. In 2015, the city committed to creating 15,000 additional apartments over 15 years; the state launched a pledge of another 20,000. Nearly halfway through this arc, both programs remain on track and Governor Hochul has requested an additional 3,500 units. These goals respond to a set of ever-changing and never-met needs and definitions. (One area that’s ripe for innovation is bureaucratic routine: At 90 Sands, Breaking Ground is piloting a new procedure allowing them to find and screen potential tenants directly rather than having each step of the process go through a government agency. The result is that it now takes three to four weeks to go from application to signed lease, compared to two and a half months.) A new protocol has emerged over the past two decades: instead of requiring applicants to follow treatment and have their problems under control before If you are entitled to an apartment, the Housing First approach starts by giving them a separate place on the theory that all other forms of suffering are easier to manage if you are dry, warm and safe.
None of this is a panacea or an exact science. There are many budget requirements and regulations, but few guides for architects on what works and what doesn’t. In El Borinquen, a building from the ground up located at Third Avenue and East 166th Street in the Morrisania section of the Bronx, architect Alexander Gorlin laid out 148 apartments (including 90 solidarity) in a concrete grid animated by multicolored pixels on the facade. The polychrome theme continues inside with kaleidoscopic floor patterns, a tiled wall in the colors of each Latin American flag, and a huge mural by Aurelio del Muro and Marta Blair. Brightness is an experience, says Rosa Gil, who runs nonprofit developer Comunlife. “We wanted to incorporate a lot of art to see if we could help individuals achieve better health outcomes.” A glass-walled art gallery on the ground floor announces this ambition to all who pass by. Equally important, the studios are almost luxurious, with floor-to-ceiling windows, large wheelchair-accessible bathrooms, and kitchens arranged to insert a spatial boundary between food preparation and the rest of life. On a gray winter’s day, El Borinquen looks like a haven of liveliness and calm in a troubled part of town, pearly light streaming from all sides, unleashing deliberate strokes of charm.
Satisfying as they are, these projects only whet the appetite for more. The headwinds are evident: costs, scarcity of sites, weak consensus, and wavering availability of funds. But as governments try to bolster their responses to the intertwined epidemics of homelessness and mental illness, they could pause to savor an area of small success. Ingrid Gould Ellen, director of NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, points out that effective strategies in one part of the chain can lessen the need for desperate tactics in another. “If we could put everyone in supportive housing, we wouldn’t have to involuntarily get people off the streets. They wouldn’t be there.