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Communities in Need: Architecture is Only Part of the Solution

Creating Homes for the Homeless: Challenges and Solutions

September 23rd, 2015 by

Communities around the nation struggled during the recent Great Recession when people discovered they owed more on their mortgages than their homes were worth. At the end of 2012, at least one in five homes had a mortgage that was upside-down, according to Core Logic. But the numbers improved significantly by the end of 2014, when one in ten homeowners owed more than their property was worth — and that’s the good news. The bad news is that the risks of home ownership drove many more people to start renting.

Consequently, the rent prices that have climbed steadily since 2000 continue to rise, and many renters now pay 30 to 50 percent of their income in rent. The National Alliance to End Homelessness in America reports that since 2007, the number of households with a severe housing cost burden (meaning more than 50 percent of their income goes toward housing) has increased 25 percent. Rising housing prices are taking such a toll, in fact, that in 2014, an estimated 40 percent of homeless individuals were families. Why is that the case?

When families have a limited income, housing is often the first bill unpaid. This leaves the most vulnerable of our populations at risk of losing shelter. Families who live below the poverty line lose their homes and become homeless. In fact, low-income families are now considered the community most in need in the United States.

A moral and financial obligation
As a society, we have a moral imperative to shelter the most vulnerable — but that’s not the only reason. Increasing research shows that homelessness is a significant financial burden on our communities. Fortunately, it’s a burden that can be reduced or eliminated. Consider, for instance, that homeless individuals are more likely to require emergency medical care, and by providing supportive housing, public systems costs can be reduced by 40 to 60 percent. As Rosanne Haggerty wrote in this past winter in The New York Times, “[by] matching people to the right level of housing assistance quickly, we can end the misery of homelessness while making smart use of public resources.”

So, what is the correct model and approach? It appears that design alone is not the solution, despite the many unique and innovative ideas architects and artists have come up with to address the problem. Studies reveal that the appropriate supportive services must accompany the bricks and mortar — in other words, shelter alone will not solve homelessness. The needs of homeless individuals have to be assessed, and specific programs developed and administered. In some cases, rapid rehousing (a short to medium term rental assistance program that assures individuals do not lose their homes) is enough. In other cases, medical and social services must be integrated with the housing solution.

Transitional housing models
Over the last 10 years, we have worked with several clients to design a variety of transitional housing projects for formerly homeless individuals. The models vary, of course, because each population has different needs. Some just need a stable home with an affordable rent, while others require extensive supportive services, such as those provided at The Baltimore Station, a residential treatment program that supports veterans and others who are suffering from homelessness and chronic addiction. For that project, we designed the Baker Street Station for Men to provide dorm style living for groups of formerly homeless men. This model recreates the military experience, and since 80 percent of the clients are veterans, truly provides the support they need.

Magda Blog in-post exterior
Another model we’ve worked on is Project PLASE (People Lacking Ample Shelter and Employment), a program that addresses the life struggles of clients and the community in a holistic manner. Currently, PLASE provides housing to 450 Baltimore residents annually, with varying levels of support, and is designing a new facility to provide approximately 70 one-bedroom apartments in a renovated school building. A space for public functions will occupy the original cafeteria, which has an open span and high ceilings, and apartments will be tucked into former classrooms. The goal of the program is to offer highly tailored programs and personalized support for each client.Magda Blog in-post perspectiveNot surprisingly, one of the challenges in providing housing to formerly homeless individuals is cost. In Baltimore, for instance, there are limited funds available but a lot of city owned land. So efforts are underway to curb building and construction costs. Right now, for example, we’re working with the Episcopal Housing Corporation on a program to develop permanent supportive housing in prefabricated units at a price much lower than that of standard construction methods.

As part of our research, we looked at container housing in London, where shipping containers are adapted into efficiency apartments.  This solution, though appropriate, perhaps, for London’s young hipsters, seemed too reminiscent of hobos living in train cars. Instead, we decided to develop a two-story stacked mobile home, with porches for each resident, to serve as a prototype for other sites. We’re planning to implement the prototype in 2016 at an estimated total development cost of  $130,000 per dwelling unit.

Magda Blog in-post shipping containers

Transitional housing models are only part of the solution. The many variables involved in creating homes for people in need, combined with the complexity of modern life, calls for an interdisciplinary approach. This has always been true in architecture and design. To complete a project, many talented individuals — designers, technicians, engineers, laborers, masons, carpenters, plumbers, and skilled craftsmen, to mention a few — need to work together to create a viable solution. In sheltering those most in need, creating a sense of community through collaboration is by far the most successful approach, and ultimately the most cost effective approach.