Housing experts beseech designers to not scrimp on low-income homes

September 23, 1990|By Edward Gunts

In most places it's easy to tell where the haves live and where the have-nots live -- by design.

Much of the new housing built for low- and moderate-income residents simply looks cheaper -- because it is.

And if the haves can tell, so can the have-nots.

"I always thought architects were so creative. But what I see in affordable housing is so plain and dull," Kimi Gray, a longtime resident of the Kenilworth-Parkside public housing complex in Washington, told a roomful of architects, housing officials and others during a visit to Baltimore. Ms. Gray, a national leader in the movement for resident self-management and homeownership conversion of public housing, is one of several dozen housing experts who gathered at the Belvedere Hotel last week to examine ways to close the gap in design quality between affordable housing and market-rate housing.

Sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Architectural Foundation, the educational arm of the American Institute of Architects, the three-day conference brought together architects, bankers, non-profit developers and others from around the East Coast who are working in the field of affordable housing.

The meeting was the first of at least four such conferences

planned by the NEA and AAF as part of a "Design for Housing" program launched last year.

Baltimore was selected to host the first conference, according to program director Susan Hyatt, because it has a variety of affordable housing projects, a knowledgeable architectural community and a supportive city administration.

"We're not looking for answers," Ms. Hyatt said. "We're looking for a process by which people involved in low-income housing can understand each other better and see the opportunities that exist for well-designed low income housing.

One of the most important issues, she said, is the question of balancing short-term cost savings vs. long-term livability.

During the three days of talks, presentations and discussions, including a field trip to the Alameda Place town house community off Cold Spring Lane, that basic issue of design vs. cost came up again and again.

Some participants argued that the need for affordable housing is so great and federal funding is so limited that construction must proceed even though many of the affordable houses are small and lack amenities that market-rate houses have.

"The lists are not getting any smaller," said Chickie Grayson, director of project management and construction for the Enterprise Social Investment Corp., one of the groups building nearly 286 town houses in the Sandtown-Winchester section of West Baltimore with funds from the federal Nehemiah housing program.

"Unfortunately, we have more people out there who need housing this year than we had last year," Ms. Grayson said.

But others said planners must take a long-range view.

"I'm afraid we will be building theslums of tomorrow if money is always the bottom line," said Laurie Maurer, a Brooklyn-based architect and member of the AIA's Affordable Housing Task Force.

"It's not just a question of managing scarce resources intelligently," Ms. Maurer said. "There will be a point where even the most skillful architects and the most skillful developers will cut so much that their designs will not be serving the people whose name is on the floor plan. I am concerned that we have reached that point already." If the end is to serve in a human way, not just a practical way, the bottom line has to be raised up."

"When you cut through everything, it is absolutely imperative in our judgment that we not scrimp on the quality of design in affordable housing," agreed Dennis Rash, president of the North Carolina National Bank Community Development Corp., an NCNB subsidiary that specializes in inner-city economic and housing development.

"We need to close the gap" between the haves and the have-nots, said Robert Quilter, an architect with Baltimore's Department of Housing and Community Development.

If anything, he said, the gap has widened in recent years as upper- middle-class houses have increased in size and affordable housing has gotten smaller.

Ms. Grayson of Enterprise said she agrees with those sentiments but is primarily interested in finding ways to improve housing without increasing the costs of construction.

"I'd like to challenge the AIA to come up with good designs that don't cost any more. That's what we're looking for: quality design for the least cost. . . . Please help me build a better house."

Ms. Gray, who serves as chairperson of Washington-based National Association of Resident Management Corporations, said she believes one solution is for architects to let residents become involved in the design process from the start rather than architects dictating how residents should live.

"Architects presume to do for us what they would not dare do for corporate clients," she said."You are the hardest people in the world to work with -- especially for affordable housing. . ."

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