Think Tank considers solutions to affordable housing crisis
Density, design, and policy: Legat Architects’ 2021 Think Tank session assembles architects, engineers, and developers to explore ways of addressing catastrophic affordable housing shortages
Architect Todd Rhoades was cleaning up after serving at a shelter when a homeless person approached him. “Thank you for the great tacos tonight,” said the man. “But more important, thank you for looking me in the eye when we talked earlier. You won’t believe how many people don’t do this.”
The comment made Rhoades think about how often the homeless are treated as if they are invisible. A national disinvestment in the homeless population led Legat Architects to invite Rhoades, design coordinator at Minneapolis-based LHB Corporation, to deliver the keynote of Legat’s Think Tank session on Housing Stock & Design Alternatives. The Think Tank is a partner program with this year’s Chicago Architecture Biennial.
Rhoades presented a case study detailing the design challenges of Catholic Charities’ Dorothy Day Place, a mixed-use campus that caters to the homeless in St. Paul, Minnesota. Following the keynote, a panel moderated by Legat’s Adam Quigley assembled a group of architects, engineers, and developers to discuss how the design and construction community can address housing inequalities.
Two key points emerged from the Think Tank session. First, the U.S. desperately needs more affordable housing. “This isn’t just a problem in Seattle, San Francisco, or New York,” said Rhoades. “It’s happening everywhere.” Second, design can be a tool to not only show dignity and respect to the homeless, but also to help elevate them out of poverty.
Hope and Dignity for Hundreds
Rhoades cited a recent StarTribune article titled, “No wonder it’s hard to find a new home: The Twin Cities has the worst housing shortage in the nation.”
Catholic Charities, aiming to address that shortage, challenged Rhoades’ firm to design Dorothy Day Place. At $110 million, it became the largest public-private partnership in housing and social services in Minnesota state history. With its 370 total dwelling units and shelter space for 286, DDR has as total occupancy of 656.
Among the 283,200-square-foot facility’s programs are seven-dollar-per-night “pay-for-stay” shelters, various levels of permanent supportive housing, units for women with alcohol/substance use disorders, a community clinic, and a common kitchen where residents can cook for themselves or their peers.
“The notion of hope is very important for the homeless,” said Rhoades. “They need help trying to get their feet back on the ground and thinking about the future.”
One way that Dorothy Day Place helps its clients build esteem is through abundant daylight and connections to nature and the surrounding city. Its common rooms offer stunning views toward city icons like the Cathedral of St. Paul Church, the Xcel Energy Center, the Minnesota State Capitol, and even the Mississippi River beyond. Outside, rooftop terraces overlook a courtyard with a snow melt system that welcomes both Dorothy Day clients and the public.
Moreover, the design’s focus on details is evident in everything from the salvaged cast iron angels above kitchen cabinets to the maple wood ceiling that stretches across a shelter lobby like, in one client’s words, “a natural warm blanket.”
A Gateway on a “Goofy” Site
The good thing about the Dorothy Day Place project site, according to Rhoades, is its location at the edge of downtown and its surrounding landmarks. Its “goofy” triangular shape, however, posed a major challenge.
In the end, Rhoades and team designed two large facilities, Higher Ground St. Paul (111,300 square feet) and Dorothy Day Center (171,900 square feet), connected by a skyway to make Dorothy Day Place a gateway into downtown Saint Paul. Both facilities have entries along the street and within the courtyard.
Material selection played a key role in the facade design. Brick identifies the first two pay-for-stay shelter floors of Higher Ground St. Paul. Hovering above the brick base is a light metal and precast concrete box that houses permanent single room occupancy (SRO) units on floors three and four. The adjacent Dorothy Day Center flips the materials stacking: precast and metal clad the Opportunity Center (dining and commercial kitchen, medial and dental clinic, roof terrace) on floors one and two, while brick identifies the Dorothy Day Residence efficiency and SRO units above. Overall, the dark brick echoes the historic buildings in downtown St. Paul, while the lighter metal and precast suggest advancement or moving up.
Window placement was another key design factor. Rhoades said, “We delineated a horizontal window expression for Higher Ground St. Paul to emphasize moving into downtown and a staccato rhythm of windows for the Dorothy Day Residence to create a feeling of repose once you have arrived.”
Additionally, the strong vertical nature of the entrances to both structures pays tribute to the twin steeples of the neighboring Assumption Church, also the original Dorothy Day drop-in center.
“Regardless of who you are and your income, design is important.” – Todd Rhoades, LHB Corporation
Courtyard: A Safe, Dry Gathering Place for Clients and Community Members
The courtyard helped resolve the complexity of the site and create order at street level. Though Rhoades and his team had researched similar facilities with separate courtyards and entrances for men and women, they determined to “have everyone enter the same way to reinforce the public image of the courtyard.”
Additionally, the dining room and lobby extend into the courtyard to break down the scale of the buildings and create a more welcome entry into the shelter and the Opportunity Center. Large expanses of glass allow community members to see in and staff to see out to monitor courtyard activity. The courtyard’s trees and “outdoor rooms” complete with retaining walls and chairs entice both Dorothy Day Place clients and those live and work in St. Paul.
A snow melt system not only keeps the courtyards safe and snow-free all year round, but also reduces maintenance—less salt, snow, and grit enter the building.
Steps to Recovery
Rhoades also showed the progression of shelter and living spaces within Dorothy Day Place. As formerly homeless residents move up, their lives become more stable. It starts with the overnight shelter on first floor of Higher Ground St. Paul, moves to pay-for-stay beds on the second, and then shifts to single room occupancy dwellings on floors three through five.
“Most homeless folks living on the street are living day to day and their entire life is a 24-hour cycle,” said Rhoades. “Once they have permanent housing, it gives them the opportunity to start thinking about job opportunities and education. This is a first step to getting their lives back in order.”
Cornerstones of Success
Rhoades attributes the success of Dorothy Day Place to several factors. He called Tim Marx, the Catholic Charities CEO at the time of the project, “one of the most charismatic and compassionate leaders I’ve ever met.” He also credits strong support from the mayor, the city council, and the business community, as well as an influential fundraising team and a dedicated Catholic Charities staff. Moreover, the development partners were willing to do some of the work pro bono. Rhoades and his team kept each of these stakeholders involved in the design decisions.
Peeling Back the Ugly: Housing Stock & Design Alternatives Panel
Several Housing Stock & Design Alternative panelists could sympathize with each other for being screamed at by community members who severely oppose affordable housing. The arguments against it are often the same: concerns about traffic, property value, safety, and others.
Kevin Zeppernick, principal and CEO at Columbus, Ohio-based Thrive Companies, stressed the importance of design and development teams approaching the community early to make it a grassroots effort. He and other panelists also stated that one of the best ways to steer clear of conflict is avoid going into neighborhoods with preconceived plans.
“Too often, developers push in and have a proforma they need to drive a project,” he said. “Even if they’re taking the time to meet with a community, they’re not listening.”
Rhoades added, “I can’t tell you how many developers get blown out of a room because they bring the drawings before anything has been discussed.” He recommends that before they meet with community groups, development teams sit down with a city councilperson who represents the neighborhood to explain the project and its benefits.
According to Zeppernick, design charrettes also help placate would-be opponents not only by showing how projects benefit them, but also showing that their input is valued. He said, “A lot of times if you peel back the ugly that happens with the initial backlash when you try to put a project there, a lot of problems aren’t that hard to solve.”
Stephen J. Ortego, principal architect and founder of SO Studio in Lafayette, Louisiana, added that community members need to understand how housing fits into its surroundings. Enclave, designed by his firm, is a nearly 100-unit townhouse development in an area that is transitioning from a suburban to an urban setting. Like neighboring communities, each home has a two-car garage, along with materials and colors that give it a distinct appearance. However, the stacking of homes above garages creates the density that supports the transition.
“Pushing outward and not densifying will be catastrophic. We have to convince cities to double down on using vacated land.” – Kevin Zeppernick, Thrive Companies
The Power of Design
During his keynote, Todd Rhoades brought up the challenge of overcoming the stereotype that design usually takes a backseat when it comes to affordable housing. “Regardless of who you are and your income,” he said, “design is important.”
David Block, director of development at Chicago-based Evergreen Real Estate, is an architect and urban planner who works almost exclusively with affordable housing. He encourages architects to get more involved in affordable housing developments, while arguing that developers should push architectural teams to be more thoughtful with the design of these facilities.
Block shared with the group two library/affordable housing mixed-used projects that have transformed their Chicago neighborhoods. In both cases, the projects have won multiple awards for their innovative design.
The panelists hinted that poorly designed affordable housing reinforces stereotypes about the residents. If developers prioritize design, said Rhoades, people can mistake affordable housing for market rate housing. He also pushes for mixed-income developments, citing successful examples in Europe. People should not be able to point at a development and say, “That’s where the poor people live.”
Finding Value in Vacant Properties
Abandoned properties are often seen as a blight on neighborhoods. Sadly, the glut of COVID-related business shutdowns has compounded the problem.
“The Available City,” the theme of this year’s Chicago Architecture Biennial, focuses on the renewal of these vacant areas to enhance community growth. The Think Tank panelists took on this topic as well.
Zeppernick has seen the tremendous impact that redeveloping brownfield sites can have on a community. One factor that plays a critical role is speed of construction.
“People are excited to see something new,” said Zeppernick, “but they don’t want to be living in a war zone for ten years with construction traffic.” To combat the problem, he often oversees projects with multiple phases happening simultaneously. He also recommends giving construction tours to everyone from city leaders to curious residents to keep the excitement going.
Block discussed some of the economic advantages of redeveloping historic buildings. Examples include federal and state level historic tax credits. He said, “You can bring 20 to 45 percent of the costs of redeveloping these properties into the capital stack.”
The mayor of Aurora, Illinois invited Block’s team to redevelop the St. Charles Hospital, which was vacant for more than five years. Block said the facility, built in 1932, was a “horror show” with leaks, destruction from vandalism, and boarded up windows. The facility’s masonry and structure, however, were still strong.
Block’s team restored and transformed the facility into Aurora St. Charles Senior Living, which offers 60 units of affordable housing. According to Block, it has garnered the praise of neighbors and has improved their property values.
Ortego’s firm is rejuvenating Trappey’s, a bean cannery that has been shuttered since 1992. The site’s location next to the Vermilion River and near the Lafayette Regional Airport makes it ideal for a mixed-use development. The public-private partnership (PPP) is getting tax credits from state and federal governments.
Energy and Sustainability
The panel’s sustainability and energy specialist Scott Farbman pointed out that the building sector is responsible for nearly 40% of carbon emissions. “If delivering low carbon is important,” he said, “we need to look at everything down to the adhesives, sealants, and studs.”
Many buildings owners and developers, affordable housing or otherwise, are reluctant to embrace net-zero energy (i.e., producing enough energy to offset any energy consumed) design due to concerns about costs. Not so fast. Farbman said with more design integration and earlier involvement from engineers, developments can achieve net-zero status at current design costs.
Farbman, innovation lead and building performance analyst at dbHMS+, shared several examples of organizations that offer sustainable grants. In Illinois, for instance, ComEd offers a program that enables builders to get up to $4.40 per square foot. The same organization also recently launched a program that offers up to $350,000 to help cover energy efficient systems.
According to Farbman, another major problem with affordable housing is not putting residents first when it comes to indoor air quality. He said, “Because there is not an obvious return on investment, engineers need to figure out how to quantify health and wellness in air quality.”
Farbman discussed two groundbreaking projects his firm worked on for the C40 Reinventing Cities competition in Chicago. One of them will be the first 100% affordable housing high-rise in downtown Chicago.
When he thinks about sustainability, Zeppernick’s rallying cry is for the densification of cities. “The infrastructure in the U.S. is eroding,” he said, “so pushing outward and not densifying will be catastrophic. We have to convince cities to double down on using vacated land.” He also advocates focusing developments in areas where people can live, work, and play without having to get into a car.
According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the U.S. has a shortage of 6.8 million affordable housing units. Meanwhile, many houses are fetching 10 to 20 percent above asking price.
“We need housing now and we don’t have enough policies in place,” said Rhoades. “We need the money and we need to get going. This crisis escalates every day and it’s totally out of control. It’s tragic.”
But there is hope. Block said that unlike five years ago, Washington D.C. is discussing affordable housing every day. The Think Tank panelists agreed that the future of affordable housing depends on government subsidies. Otherwise, said Block, “the economics just don’t work.”
When residents ascend one staircase at Dorothy Day Residence, a narrow bay window that extends between two walls provides views toward downtown St. Paul and the Mississippi River. Rhoades said that this feature “celebrates the individual within the larger composition and creates a satisfying moment where you feel connected to your surroundings.”
Let us hope that in the coming decades, architects, engineers, developers, and cities can unite to connect and elevate socially and economically disadvantaged individuals.
Contact us or comment below to share your thoughts on this post. Lead photo copyright Brandon Stengel.