Making mixed-income housing work: the low-income units must look good

If you wanted to briefly summarize the lessons that have been learned recently about how to create and manage mixed-income housing, here are four items that would appear at the top of the list:

• Make sure the facades of the lower-cost housing look just as attractive as those of market-rate housing.

• In whatever city you’re working, measure the dimensions and proportions of the streets with the highest real estate values, and use those to design the streets of the new development.

• Assign case managers to work with low-income tenants, so that those residents are able to function well.

• Organize youth activities that give poor teenagers an alternative to hanging out on the streets.

Raymond Gindroz, principal in Urban Design Associates in Pittsburgh, and Willie Jones, senior vice president of The Community Builders in Boston, offered those recommendations during an August 20 audio seminar on affordable New Urbanism, sponsored by New Urban News.

New Urbanism and HUD’s HOPE VI program have altered Americans’ notions of how to produce and manage low-income housing. Fifteen or 20 years ago, people involved in creating low-income housing focused “almost entirely on how to build the cheapest possible box,” according to Gindroz. But construction of bare-bones housing for poor people tended to drive out individuals and families with somewhat higher incomes — thus concentrating poverty and the problems associated with it.

The mixing of poor people with individuals and families higher on the economic ladder has become a priority at HUD. And one of the things that’s been learned is that in order to create and maintain an economic mix, the exteriors of the low-income units must make an impression that market-rate occupants find appealing.

The quality of the houses’ facades is critically important to making a favorable impression, Gindroz said, because the facades are major components of the streetscape. Though money in HOPE VI projects is always tight, Gindroz has found that “by creating the simplest possible box for the house itself, it’s possible to spend money on the facade.”

Small houses, large porches

In the Randolph neighborhood in Richmond, Virginia, Urban Design Associates designed modest-sized houses with appealing facades like those of older houses nearby. “These small houses,” Gindroz noted, “have very large porches and very large windows, the most essential attributes of an urban house.”

Architects and developers should “create the image you’re looking for, be certain about what it is, codify it in such a way that you know what the most important elements [are], and make sure they get communicated to the builders,” he said. Massing, roof details, the types of windows, and the composition of the windows can “make or break a neighborhood,” in Gindroz’s estimation.

When mixed-income developments succeed, benefits are reaped by neighboring areas. Projects such as the First Ward development that Urban Design Associates designed in Charlotte, North Carolina — one-third public housing, one-third tax-credit-subsidized housing for low-income residents, and one-third market-rate units — have spurred “transformations from very desperate, desperately depressed neighborhoods into substantial ones,” Gindroz said.

Keeping builders

in line

It’s common for builders to want to use their own stock designs when they work in mixed-income urban projects. That can undermine the planners’ intentions and reduce the neighborhood’s appeal. “We have had the most success with providing standard plans that are then used — at least in the early stages — in order to be able to set the tone,” said Gindroz. Jones concurred, pointing out that if homebuilders’ products diverge from the project’s vision, “it really can undermine the credibility of what you’re doing.” The first phase of a development is crucial to establishing the tone. Consequently, builders should not be given much leeway at the project’s outset.

The right materials greatly affect a development’s visual impact. Fiber cement siding, brick foundations, and in some instances brick facades “all create an image of high-quality housing,” according to Gindroz. Jones recommended selecting materials that resonate with the target market. But he also suggested being alert to materials that can be produced more cheaply — as long as they don’t look inferior. He has been involved in projects that combined brick with lower-cost vinyl fabrication, for example. The bottom line, according to Jones, is that “if you drop beneath the threshold” of good quality, the results will suffer — you’ll end up with “a product that really looks and feels like an affordable housing deal as opposed to a great neighborhood.”

When new urbanists propose deviating from existing standards — as they often do on matters such as street width — government agencies frequently object. “One of the techniques we have found consistently useful in this,” Gindroz said, “is to document with measured drawings the dimensions and proportions of what are considered to be the very best residential streets in the city, with the highest real estate values, and have those prepared as precedents for the streets we’re proposing. So that when the engineers come up and say, ‘Your designs are substandard or below the standard,’ you can point to the highest real estate value in the city and say, ‘Well, how does it work here?’ And very often it will introduce some flexibility.”

Residents often don’t want low-income housing introduced into their neighborhood. One way to dissolve the resistance is to propose putting a mix of low-income and market-rate apartments into a historic building that’s in poor condition — a building that residents would like to see fixed up. He noted that middle-income neighborhoods often have a nuisance property in the vicinity; it may be an old industrial site or a former low-income housing project. Frequently the neighborhood will look favorably on converting that nuisance into low- and middle-income housing.

Creating a new image

Park DuValle, a HOPE VI project in Louisville, had to overcome the stigma of a crime-ridden public housing project that had occupied its site. The Community Builders hired a public relations firm to generate articles more than once a month, crafting a new image for the site. Public events, appearances on TV shows, a high-quality brochure, and other publicity altered how the public viewed the area.

Jones said that to make the marketing successful, it’s important to have a wide range of housing ready when the project begins seeking move-ins. Persuading higher-income homebuyers to become some of the first occupants can set a positive image. Grants and second or “soft” third mortgages have worked well as homebuyer incentives, according to Gindroz. “In pioneering locations in the early stages,” Gindroz noted, “people need to feel they’re getting a bargain.”

Some public housing agencies are trying to become more like entrepreneurial developers and to allow lower-income housing to look like market-rate housing. The layouts of the rental units must work well because “if the unit isn’t livable, it’s very difficult to get people to … be long-term tenants,” Jones said. “Long-term tenancy is what really reduces your operating costs over time.” Focus groups are useful in helping the designers lay out the units or revise their configuration.

Although it can be hard to get public housing agencies to focus social services on residents of a particular development, Jones said social services for the low-income occupants are essential. “We try to hire case managers,” he said, to get involved with the poor residents, advocate on their behalf, and try to overcome “whatever their deficiencies are.”

Jones said that rather than engage in wholesale dislocation of the existing occupants, The Community Builders tries “to focus a set of resources on upgrading people’s capacity to participate in the neighborhood.” The upgrading, he said, is done through three principal means: “housing readiness, youth programming and management, and neighborhood association or governance.”

In a family neighborhood, youth recreation should be part of the program, Jones said. “There’s nothing that undermines the sense of safety in a neighborhood more than youth running around with nothing to do.”

There seems to be considerable optimism about the future of mixed-income housing. “We’re in an evolving start of the art here,” said Gindroz. “The last five years have been extraordinary in raising the quality level of mixed-income, mixed-finance development.” New Urbanism has played a key role in that improvement, he said, by “focusing public attention on the value of neighborhoods and the quality of neighborhood space.”