Q&A: Katie Swenson on the Housing Crisis, Healthy Communities, and the Value of Integrated Design

In America, nineteen million low-income families are “housing insecure.” Housing specialist Katie Swenson discusses different strategies to begin tackling this urgent issue.

The Star Apartments in L.A. provides a public medical clinic on the ground floor. The development includes over 13,000 square feet of community space.

Courtesy Theresa Hwang

In New York alone, about 30,000 children are homeless today. The task of affordable housing is a daunting one, and one organization has tackled it for the past 33 years through public-private partnerships. Katie Swenson, vice president of national design initiatives at Enterprise Community Partners, spoke to Metropolis about the housing crisis, healthy communities, and the value of integrated design.

Avinash Rajagopal: Is affordable housing in the United States in crisis?

Katie Swenson: At Enterprise, we’re really trying to confront what we see as a broad housing and security crisis in this country. Nineteen million low-income families are “housing insecure.” About one in six households in the U.S. is living paycheck to paycheck. Essentially, one unforeseen event—illness, job loss, dropping hours at work—and people are on the doorstep, having to move or being evicted.

With renters it’s even worse. Since 2000, the number of housing-insecure renters has increased by 82 percent—from six million people to 11 million people. These people are forced to make these really toxic choices—pay your rent or buy groceries, pay for transportation to work or for health care.

AR: How has Enterprise Community Partners worked to combat homelessness?

KS: The Star Apartments in Los Angeles and the Richardson Apartments in San Francisco are examples of projects that were done by our partners who work to end chronic homelessness in those cities. We support these homeless groups in a number of ways. What we’ve really learned is that getting somebody off the street and into a housing unit is the first step, but it goes further than that.

We’ve also learned that design makes an incredible difference. Both of these groups have come to understand that the quality of the unit, the building, and the experience for the resident are each essential to transitioning them permanently off the street. We also do what we call “permanent supportive housing”— we know there needs to be both mental and physical health services. Both the San Francisco and Los Angeles apartment buildings include support for the arts, exercise, nutrition, and reestablishing a way of life for people.

The design of those complexes has been really important. On Los Angeles’s Skid Row, some of the city’s highest-quality architects such as Michael Maltzan are working closely with the Skid Row Housing Trust, which has invested in visually stunning buildings. They boost pride for the residents and subvert the stigma around affordable housing. In San Francisco, the Richardson Apartments is a few steps away from City Hall. There’s a “not in my backyard” mentality in many places, but the incredibly beautiful design done by David Baker Architects and our Rose Fellow, Laura Shipman, allows that building to be integrated into the neighborhood—everybody uses the café, whether they’re formerly homeless and live in the building, or just work around the corner. The quality of the design is a part of the solution.

The Richardson Apartments in San Francisco were designed to promote physical and mental health by providing homeless people with a feeling of security and encouraging social interaction.

Courtesy Daniel Splaingard

AR: What is an ideal team to come together for an affordable housing project?

KS: We’ve learned things over time. The Rose Architectural Fellowship [which partners young architects with local community-based organizations] started in 2000, and then we developed the Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute [which organizes workshops for best affordable housing practices and their design]. Out of that evolved the predevelopment design grants that we’ve been making.

What we’ve shown is that when you find community-development groups that have a real ambition around holistic neighborhood developments, then we can get a designer on that development team to sort of push and unearth all the opportunities, to help these groups go through a meaningful community-engagement process. It can really be a transformative process. We’ve been doing this for 15 years, and this idea that design is embedded in the development team hadn’t really happened before in affordable housing.

As our practices evolved, we also understood how to work best with landscape architects and other types of designers in the development process. The leadership institute really tries to cultivate an awareness around the possibilities that a rigorous and robust design process can bring to every development project. Most recently, we started saying, “If 70 percent of design decisions are being made in the first ten percent of the design process, in affordable housing, that early stage is exactly the time when there is not enough time, not enough money, and not enough expertise.” So we started making a targeted grant-support plan to fuel design at those early stages.

AR: How can affordable housing design move beyond solving the problem of homelessness to creating sustainable, healthy communities?

KS: We recently announced the 2015 revision of our Enterprise Green Communities criteria. In 2004, we started what is essentially a green building program for affordable housing—only it was always called “green community,” not “green building,” because that is baked into Enterprise’s approach. You have to look at good locations and transportation issues and if the building connects to jobs, health care, schools, and fresh food, and if it is in a safe neighborhood. The Green Communities criteria also work their way through energy and water efficiency, which not only has an environmental impact, but also affects resident success if you can lower energy and water bills.

In the 2015 criteria, we are putting an additional emphasis on a few other things, such as integrated design. We learn more ever day that the success of a project is going to be directly related to its design process and that the ability to be making design decisions up front will lead to outcomes that can have a measurable impact, especially on human health. We have a wonderful board member who says housing is like a vaccine. She is a pediatrician, and children will come into her clinic with asthma problems or with allergies, and she essentially wants to write them a prescription for healthy homes.

AR: What is Enterprise’s next focus?

KS: We are working toward this outcome-based design approach. Basically, the outcome that you seek is not a new building, but a safer neighborhood. Or if you want to think about a family, what’s your hope for them? For that mom to have a job, the ability to take her kids to school or daycare, that there is a healthy meal on their table at dinnertime, and that children are getting up in the morning, well rested, and able to go to school with their homework done. How do you set that as your intention? The seismic shift is to make sure we focus everything we do in design and development on those ultimate outcomes—to hold ourselves accountable for really creating equitable access to health and all the things that are most important in our lives.

In Chicago, the Rosa Parks Apartments consists of more than 60 units across eight sites. The scattered infill strategy helped evenly disperse affordable housing and reverse the psychological effects of neighborhood deterioration by filling vacant lots.

Courtesy Daniel Splaingard

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