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Affordable housing through consensus, community

Posted by Chad O'Connor  January 23, 2014 10:00 AM

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As employment rates remain low and the cost of living continues to rise, the need for high-quality and accessible affordable housing has never been greater. Many of the developments of the 60’s and 70’s are now extremely outdated in both infrastructure and architecture – the bunker like characteristics and inward-focused mentality of the mid-century has given way to a more sustainable, community-oriented way of building modern housing. Affordable communities can radically benefit from these advancements.

In Boston, CBT Architects and The Community Builders, Inc. recently partnered together to successfully re-develop, re-design and relocate the Charlesview Residences, a community of 213 units that had been at the corner of Western Avenue and Stadium Way since the 1960’s. The new 340-unit housing community, made possible by a land swap with Harvard, addresses the modern needs of multi-generational families with low to moderate incomes and provides rental and home ownership opportunities in one-, two-, three-, and four-bedroom units. Together with John Moriarty & Associates, the team worked to deliver an urban neighborhood that will foster relationships among neighbors and friends as well as provide updated housing in an area surrounded by shops and other residences.

With the second and final stage of the development scheduled to be completed this year, what has made the large first phase of the Charlesview Residences (240 units now fully occupied) such a success? What challenges can others expect to encounter when designing and building affordable housing?

Affordability & Quality
When we talk about the “need” for affordable housing, we find that this “need” is defined in two different ways: affordability and quality. Both affordability and quality are household necessities, but the economics of availability of these necessities play out differently depending on the location of the city and the neighborhood in which you are building. In cities such as New York, Washington D.C. and Boston, basic affordability is a primary issue because of the high demand to live in these cities, which in turn causes rents to rise and become unaffordable for even modest income households. Other cities, such Cincinnati or Indianapolis have suffered from decades-old disinvestment and income stagnation, recently exacerbated by the recession, making the quality of available affordable housing one of the most pressing housing issues.

Before 2008, many people bought instead of rented and getting approved credit was much easier. Now lending conditions have changed dramatically and getting a mortgage is a much more difficult than it used to be. As a result, the number of people who are renting has radically increased. As the demand for apartments grows and with younger generations flocking to major cities, rising rents further diminish the number of affordable apartments. According to the Center for Housing Policy, one-fourth of working renter households are paying at least half of their income towards housing costs.

The quality part of this need relates to the living and safety conditions of the affordable housing options. For example, although there is affordable housing available in some neighborhoods, the buildings that offer affordable living might not be up to code or the apartments may not have passed housing & health inspections. Lack of funding for updating of subsidized apartments has put a large amount of this type of housing stock in sub-par conditions, and make it difficult for aging populations to stay in inaccessible buildings or units.

Driving Success in Affordable Housing
The Charlesview Residences was a huge success – the team addressed a litany of ideas put on the table by residents, the existing neighborhood, the land owners and developers, and the City of Boston to create a new residential neighborhood that feels like it has always been a part of the city fabric, making the residents feel comfortable and a valued part of the community.

Some key considerations in the success of this type of affordable housing development include:

Take existing community planning into consideration and build on that good will and consensus. By joining forces to produce urban planning diagrams and a series of graphics in response to city and community concerns, we were able to effectively communicate how the proposed design and density followed guidelines that were previously established in earlier stages independent from the Community Wide Planning Process.

Include multi-generational housing and living conditions. Residents vary in age, so there needs to be variation within the unit design and layout. Incorporating different typologies – high and low rise apartments, townhomes and single family units -- really helped get the Charlesview residents comfortable and excited about the project. Many of the residents had been living in the community for years and although their current home did not meet the needs of their lifestyle, some were hesitant to embrace such a significant change. Adding different home styles into the design plan allowed residents to see the benefits of the move and the new community.

Don’t be afraid to think big. At the end of the day, this is one of top things that contributed to the success of the Charlesview Residences. Every single team member wanted to build a community that met or exceeded needs and expectations of the community and residents.

The unique design of this community also contributed to its success. Unlike some other communities, the team was committed to not making the new Charlesview into a cookie-cutter community. Both the city and the community specifically requested that the apartment buildings have a sense of individuality. To do this, we used a number of different design tactics:

  • We used stick built structures that lowered overall development costs and created diversity throughout the residences;

  • To increase variety and aesthetic appeal, the site’s townhouses and row homes vary in structure and color; similarities are never repeated on the same block, making each unit individualized and encouraging the personal identity of each resident in the new urban development;

  • We incorporated open sight lines and a traditional neighborhood street pattern generates a sense of community between Brighton Mills and its surrounding neighborhoods.

Understanding and Embracing Strong Community Opinions
Designing and developing an affordable housing community can be a daunting task. Teams should be prepared to face obstacles and hesitation to embrace change from members of the community. Here are a few tips that will help tackle these challenges:

Come prepared as a team, make a point to take the time to understand the development, what challenges could come up and have a potential solution in mind. In anticipation of community apprehension, we took great care to understand the community concerns and were prepared to discuss and explain the goals and benefits of the chosen design solutions.

For example, when we were met with resistance from some residents on the proposed open and integrated configuration, we came prepared with examples of successful housing developments designed and distributed in such a way.

The community should and will have an opinion about the development. It’s important to not meet resistance with resistance but instead, work towards understanding and compromise. When we started the Charlesview Residences, we knew that the community would have very particular requests, along with the city. In order for the project to be successful, we needed to be flexible and would need to adjust initial design concepts to incorporate the requests of the city and the community.

For example, due to apprehension regarding the development’s proposed height of five stories, we reviewed lowering the Washington Street building height to four stories and reducing the density by 20 units – this compromise was well received and allowed all parties to come to an agreement. We found that the more open we were to adopting new ideas, the more accepting the community was of the development.

Always keep the residents' needs top of mind. Understandably so, the Charlesview residents had very specific requests and ideas about what they wanted the new community to represent. They did not want to be identified by their socio-economic class. We needed to design a community that was open instead of one that was inward facing – an antiquated design concept which incorporated the inward design because of security and external fear. As a result, inward facing housing design has become synonymous with low-income housing. By opening up the Charlesview design plan and integrating accessible public spaces and streetscapes within the development, the Brighton community and Charlesview residents can come together as a more interconnected, unified and open community.

The lack of affordable housing affects people in all corners of the country. Communities like the Charlesview Residences provide stability and comfort for those who seek cost-effective living. There are obstacles to all development but the more involved teams are, the more approachable and adaptable, the stronger the finished project will be and the greater positive impact it will have on the community and the lives of the residents.

Christopher Hill is Principal at CBT Architects and Sean Caron is Chief of Staff at The Community Builders, Inc.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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