Housing can be made affordable without sacrificing design

Architects find ways to balance comfort, cost


PHILADELPHIA - Ask people who can't afford a house what they want in one, and the answer is clear.

"They want their own front door and their own address," architect Stephen Schoch says. "They don't want to be just another number in a block in a housing project. They want to live like everyone else."

Even children who have lived only in public housing know what a house should look like, Schoch says: "Their drawings are of houses with gabled roofs and chimneys and front doors."

In Philadelphia's West Poplar neighborhood in 1997, residents were shown slides of all kinds of housing. "They chose the semidetached ... house on a large lot with a side driveway," says John Kromer, senior consultant to the Fels School of Government at the University of Pennsylvania.

Design is important, and that is the point of Affordable Housing: Designing an American Asset, an exhibition running through May 27 at the university's division of facilities and real estate services office.

Jayson Hait, author of the brochure accompanying the exhibition, writes that when people hear the term "affordable housing, they often envision "slums, tenements, chain-link cages enclosing concrete high-rises, filth, crime and racial segregation" and respond "not in our back yard."

It doesn't have to be that way. The modest exhibition, sponsored by the Fannie Mae Foundation and the National Building Museum in Washington, highlights some of the most successful efforts at affordable-housing design in recent years.

Eighteen projects in urban and rural settings around the country illustrate that architects are creating durable, environmentally sensitive, comfortable, attractive housing that also happens to be affordable, that is, housing that costs no more than 30 percent of a household's annual income.

In Washington, 12 homes were built and 28 homes were restored in LeDroit Park, in a partnership with Howard University to revitalize the first African-American neighborhood to appear on the National Register of Historic Places.

Architects designed five prototype townhouses, each reflecting one of the district's predominant styles. The new and restored houses were priced for middle-income families and sold at cost by the university to avoid neighborhood gentrification.

Estimates nationwide put the number of households overburdened by housing costs at 30 million, about 25 percent. Yet only recently have the people who will live in affordable housing been included in decisions about how the houses look.

For 50 years, "designers of public housing sat in offices trying to create utopias," says Schoch, lead architect for the St. Joseph's Carpenter Society's Baldwin's Run project in East Camden, N.J. "People know how they want to live, and we should respect those wishes in the housing that we design."

Often, a lot of well-meaning damage must be undone first.

In the case of East Camden, Schoch says, he and other architects at Kitchen & Associates and the people at St. Joseph's "saw what we were doing as mending the torn fabric" of a neighborhood that had "been patched with something that didn't quite fit."

The bad fit was the now-demolished Westfield Acres, a prototypical public-housing project that was so isolated from the surrounding neighborhood that it became an almost impenetrable haven for illicit activities.

"By erasing the image of Westfield, we have been able to draw off the strengths of the surrounding neighborhood, including its architectural references," Schoch says. That includes offering a variety of styles that create diversity.

"By bringing in the people for whom the housing was to be built and the people who would be living around it early in the process, we were able to get everyone to buy into the project," he says.

"The goal is to have affordable housing look like everything else," Schoch says, and "to have people who don't meet the criteria eager to buy it."

"Well-designed subsidized housing can set the stage for the next level, the development of market-rate housing," Kromer says. "The issue of affordable housing, therefore, is critical to the revitalization of a city."

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