IS IT TIME FOR DC TO TRY SOMETHING NEW? The Role of Architecture in Housing and Community Development


Original Sketch by David Adjaye

“This is why I do architecture. I’m just beginning to realize that what I build can influence the way people behave in these spaces.”

David Adjaye

Architect, Sugar Hill

Broadway Housing Community

is working to upend every existing paradigm and stigma that surrounds the underserved citizen’s need for a place to call home. And architecture is playing a big role in their most recent community development. BHC is responsible for the development of one of the most anticipated innovations in low income housing in our nation’s history. The Sugar Hill development in Harlem is a $89 million dollar triumph for affordable housing. Architectural criticism aside, this development is full of social and financial successes and learning moments in public interest design.

Hiring the world-class architect, David Adjaye, to design a housing development whose ROI lies almost solely in tax credits and goodwill is heroic. Even with the lessons learned with the creation of Cabrini Green, design still remains a low priority in quality affordable housing.

Historian Devereux Bowly Jr. wrote in his 1978 book "The Poorhouse”, “the decision was made from the beginning that emphasis would be placed on housing that was well-constructed, easy to maintain, but architecturally undistinguished.” We know now that, “...housing projects are almost universally viewed as failures that devour human lives and tax dollars.”

Allotting all 124 units to underserved families (20 percent formerly homeless) with zero market rate apartments to balance costs is herculian. Affordable housing has never been a priority in the U.S. In fact, there are no concessions in the US for permanent affordable housing. Investment contracts with special loans are set for 15 or 30 years of rent control. After which, developers and owners are free to charge market rates or better. This is what’s happening currently in DC. Part of the reason affordable housing seems to be coming to a head all at once is because the statutes from the 80’s are running out one after the other. The potential influx of cash is just too much to resist. So what we are left with is a housing crisis that disregards the needy with no end in sight, unless, of course, we get creative.

The supportive housing model of BHC incorporates “medical and mental health care, vocational training and job placement, substance abuse treatment, benefits counseling and training and assistance with independent living skills” all without leaving home. As BHC founder Ellen Baxter says, “she could get hit by a truck and the communities would go on fine without her.” It’s the residents that create the communities and truly embrace one another.  People to whom mainstream society turns a blind eye and treat like troubled children who can’t have nice things for fear that they will break them. The tenants have time and again proven that through trust and with the support of BHC and Ellen Baxter, they are more prone to create and flourish than to break.

I recently overheard an older homeless woman saying that jail was better than the shelter. She said jail was clean, the food was terrible but you could shower and it was clean. Is this the best we can do in one of the most expensive and wealthy cities in our country? Broadway Housing Community’s supportive housing model in NYC has been testing and proving their innovative methods for over 30 years. Is it time for DC to try something new?

“I don’t mind the great outdoors it’s just the awfully hard concrete” “Too bad I can’t borrow on my sorrow till I get back on my feet”

“Thank you, Lady”
Carl Wynter

- Post by Keisha Banks