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Elegant, Empathetic Affordable Housing

Pyatok: I always love to tell the story of my own neighborhoods in Brooklyn, the tenements where I grew up. We lived in four-story, walk-up buildings with eight units flanking a central staircase. Each apartment was twelve feet wide by fifty feet long and had just two windows on each of the short ends. The reason those neighborhoods were so successful had very little to do with the housing design itself. It was about the economy of the times and the culture of the times. Back in the forties and fifties, and into the mid-sixties, a lot of the people in those neighborhoods had factory jobs. They were doing something that was productive and they felt proud of it. It was certainly more dignified than flipping burgers. There was only a 3-percent unemployment rate, so they had jobs. They had all kinds of local stores to shop in; they didn't have to go to chain stores. They didn't have to own automobiles because the subway was cheap, so they had great mass transit. And they had a housing subsidy called "rent control." A lot of people may not agree with rent control, but it really helped the working class to make it in New York during those decades.

With those four ingredients in place, and a public school system that was still in pretty good shape, it was possible for kids to grow up and become productive citizens even though their families were earning in the bottom 25 percent. It didn't matter what the housing was. It's all these other supports that "make the village work," and that help to raise these families. If those supports aren't in place (and they're not now, in a lot of the inner-city neighborhoods), and there's no housing subsidy, and you have to go to chain stores, and you have to own a car, and the job base is very insecure—and those jobs you do get, you just can't make it on—the rest is just façade. You can give people like that the greatest-designed housing in the world, and you're just spitting in the wind.

PW: Can the village work if it's public housing?

Pyatok: Public housing has had its problems for a complex set of reasons. First, because a semi-public agency is charged with authority over a vast area, usually a whole city or a whole county. They end up producing thousands of units over the years, and it's very hard to be a centralized landlord with so many units. You just can't develop intimate connections to or understanding of your residents, and your staff becomes overburdened and burnt out dealing with so many people with so many problems. Employees become pretty callous, and their hearts are not in their work after not too long.

Then, too, the projects were never funded adequately enough to really maintain the properties well and provide all the kinds of services that such families need. So, they were sort of designed to fail: given too many units, too many families, not enough money to provide the kinds of services needed.

Nonprofit housing developers are different. Whereas a typical housing authority in, say, a city of 300,000 may have 10,000 to 15,000 units, a successful nonprofit working in that same city may have, after fifteen years of working, 500 to 1,000 units total. Under those circumstances, they can provide a lot more intimate service to their charges and will very often find ways, from the get-go, of including at least childcare so the parents can be freed up to participate in their job training or actual jobs.

PW: This is a "small is beautiful" argument.

Pyatok: Yeah, it's true. It really is true. I think all the projects we've done over the years have ranged from twenty to 100 units. The biggest low-income project we did was ninety-two units—and that came with childcare, a community center, retail, and a very active management company that sponsors lots of events and helps the tenants organize and become self-motivated in creating events for themselves and their neighbors.

I should add, on the other hand, that a number of housing authorities, in spite of their difficulties, have done a pretty good job. You know, surprisingly enough: New York City. With the 100,000 units or whatever they have, it's remarkable that they've stayed in as good a shape as they have, compared to a little place like San Francisco which has only 750,000 residents. I think San Francisco had no more than 20,000 public-housing– authority projects, but they just made a mess of it. Chicago didn't do well, either.

PW: I was very impressed by your putting small retail shops in one of your housing projects, and I was wondering what happens if those communities start changing. Do those little things freeze a community into a certain kind of cultural pattern? Does it allow for change when you detail housing architecture that carefully?

Pyatok: Well, the housing produced by nonprofits comes with funding sources that, in a sense, freeze who can live there over the life of the project. It must be used for people of modest income only. So in that sense, you've got permanently available affordable housing, to argue that you're contributing to the long-term diversity of a neighborhood.

Now the ability of the housing to transform itself over the years is something that we do try to build into certain kinds of projects. For example, our projects for first-time home buyers are somewhat different from our rental projects. The rental is kind of a frozen state: a three-bedroom will be a three-bedroom. But even in our rental housing, we have adapted our design. A number of groups have come to us recently, groups serving Southeast Asians whose families can become unpredictably large; we're designing two-story homes that attach to each other much the way hotels have adjoining suites.

In the ownership housing, we are building in a number of these opportunities for flexibility, with expandable attics or the ability to add a garage on the side of the house with another bedroom on the top. Even at these higher densities of twenty-five units to the acre, we try to build with this on-site expandability, to accommodate the growth of families so they're not forced to move and leave the neighborhood when they get bigger. If the family shrinks, the house can be subdivided into two, each half a smaller dwelling: one for an empty-nester and one for a starter family. Two owners can cohabit a dwelling that used to house one large family. We're also building into these "first-home" structures the means for the homeowner to rent out a piece of the house, to a roomer or an in-law, so they can pick up some additional income while actually accommodating another household without another whole unit having to be built somewhere.

DESIGNER/builder [see page 33]: A few years ago Michael Pyatok went down a street in East Oakland where, with no middle-class people living nearby to complain, he found a Philippine restaurant in the front yard of one house along with a hair-and-nails shop and a recycling center inside. Next door was a sheetmetal worker operating out of his garage. Across the street was a handmade sign dangling over another garage that announced the "House of Salads," where salads were prepared for restaurants in the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area. Next door was a man with an ice-cream truck he kept cold by stretching a long extension cord up and over the sidewalk to an outlet in his house. And down the street was a man repairing cars in his garage and front driveway.

The reason such activity works on those blocks is that all the landlords are absentee; they don't care what's going on as long as the rent is being paid and no one is squawking about keeping up the property.

Pyatok: But public-housing authorities and nonprofit corporations come along with funding sources and a whole set of regulations that disallow all this kind of activity. You're just supposed to eat, sleep, and watch the boob tube. Anything else, you have to do elsewhere, off site. It's those attitudes that have to be changed.

PW: Is there any relationship between the kind of housing design and the amount of crime?

Pyatok: There have been lots of claims one way or another, but I've been a bit more modest about it. I say that a lot has to do with the management company, and the screening of the initial tenants when they come in. While income levels will be low, the nonprofits generally have tough screening criteria; and then when it's being managed, they're pretty stern about the behavior of tenants. As far as the physical design goes, there are some things that can be done to make an area more secure. The more the housing can interact with the street—that is, with front doors and porches and bay windows and eyes on the street—the more you can keep that street secure. But at the same time, any public open spaces that are created on the property should be for the tenants and only for the tenants. You have to ring the housing around the open space, so that nobody can get to it except the people who live there. That's the mistake that was made with a lot of site planning from the 1940s into the 1980s. The belief was that the open space you created with the housing had, in order to be to sociable, to be open to everybody—including the neighborhood. With that design, it just becomes a totally porous site that anyone and his brother can break into, with multiple ways of escaping after they've committed a crime.

PW: What about contrasts between different income groups?

Pyatok: That's a little more difficult. Marin County's median income for a family of four, for example, is $65,000—but you've got people living there now where a family of four is earning $30,000.When you have people whose incomes are going to be at 40 to 60 percent of the median, do you drop them in the middle of a neighborhood where the people are at 200 percent—$130,000 per year? Probably not, because that neighborhood will probably put up a big fight, and it's not worth spending years in legal battle. Some nonprofits have done it, to their credit, and a few years after they've built, everybody in the neighborhood loves the place and realizes there really was no problem after all. The nonprofits are so tough in their screening and their management that the people they find at 50 percent of median income are exemplary members of their income class. Now, some will argue that the nonprofits are "creaming," skimming off the top of the poor, to fill their developments. On the other hand, it could be argued that a hell of a lot of work and effort goes into producing these places, and they can't be allowed to fail. Particularly in the beginning, they have to establish a track record.

Once they've got 500 units under their belt, they may be able to take on the more incorrigible families who need lots more services to support them. These families don't just need housing; they need job training, they need family counseling, they need childcare, they need all kinds of support to get them functioning again. That takes more experience, more clout, more access to funds. So a starting nonprofit would best be served by trying to provide housing for those households which, while of low income, are really doing a fine job of raising their families and staying out of trouble, even those headed by single parents.

PW: Hard to generalize about neighborhood design?

Pyatok: Yeah, it all depends on the population being served. Let's say, for example, that you're looking for an appropriate site for families. Where are the local schools? the local churches? the local parks? Is it a high-traffic street? a quiet street? Is it a street that already has a lot of families on it? a street that could welcome more families? Is it a difficult slope? a flat site? What are the topographical conditions or natural conditions that need to be respected or preserved? What are the soil conditions? If it's really soft, mushy ground, is it mostly wetland? If it's mostly wetland, you've got to leave it alone. Or, if you make a change in it, you've got to restore wetlands somewhere else. Those kinds of considerations.

Sometimes it's much more than just the housing project. There is a newly formed nonprofit up in Washington which came to us to help it develop housing for very-low-income seniors. We've been doing some analyses of existing sites in their community at the same time that they're working with a legal-aid society to help them file their 501(c)(3) papers. As soon as they get them, they'll receive a grant of $5,000, $10,000, or maybe $15,000 from a local hospital. The hospital has recognized that it's in its best interest to help create housing for low-income seniors. Part of the hospital's work is preventive medicine, and the longer you can keep seniors in their own dwellings and out of institutions, the cheaper it is for everybody—for insurance companies, for the seniors, and for the community at large. If you have good support of senior housing, then the hospital can provide services with visiting nurses and doctors, and those older folks don't have to come to the emergency rooms or travel to the hospital or end up prematurely in institutional settings. The hospital has actually, as part of its preventive-medicine program, sponsored and paid for a housing consultant whose sole purpose is to help create senior housing within the orbit of that hospital.

In short, it would be great if more architects worked closely with the community in helping to design housing as a collaborative effort, so the community understands why things get put together the way they do...and the architect can get insights into how people want to live.