The Museum of Modern Art and The Buell Center invited a series of team participants and observers who attended workshops for MoMA’s exhibition Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream to reflect on the project. Here are thoughts from Nadine Maleh, a member of Visible Weather’s team.
For most people, having a place to call home is fundamental to survival. Without a home, it’s arduous to stay healthy, maintain economic security, and create and sustain the essential relationships that determine individual well-being. Without a connection to the community, one can feel invisible. When magnified by hundreds and thousands, this struggle exacts a brutal toll on the community. By designing housing for the way people actually live, we not only design for the disenfranchised, but also for the health and sustainability of entire communities. Yet even as this is increasingly accepted we build for a very small cross section of who we are and what we actually need.
The financial crisis forced millions into foreclosure, but also forced us to confront the metastasizing growth of housing costs in the U.S., as more and more Americans allot well over 30% of their income to housing. The foreclosure statistics are harrowing, and yet they are part of only one chapter in a larger narrative of misguided housing policies. The story of Temple Terrace is a microcosm of a housing crisis decades in the making.
Temple Terrace is a suburb of Tampa, Florida, but 50 years ago it was a distant outpost of Tampa. In comparison to Tampa, it is a small city of 26,000 residents; approximately 10,000 households. There are only 168 households (as of 2009) in foreclosure in Temple Terrace. If one expands one’s vision to just beyond the confines of Temple Terrace (literally one block in some areas)—into the immediate zone that spans the Temple Terrace/Tampa border—the number of foreclosures jumps to 968. If we take into account homes that are cost-burdened (those paying over 30% of their income on housing) within this same terrain, approximately 3,000 more households are financially distressed. The border of Temple Terrace is home to relatively recent condominium conversions, but also houses that never fit the constituents’ needs in terms of costs, size, or pricing. Fifty miles southwest of Temple Terrace, a majority of the 300,000 returning veterans to the state of Florida will access services at the VA Medical Center. By looking at the varying populations in need of stable housing in Temple Terrace and the surrounding area, we can attempt to address the broader narrative of the housing crisis. With this expansive view in mind, we can begin to envision a comprehensive housing solution that is also a community solution.
Most people want to own their own home because home ownership historically offered a sense of financial security, and it satisfies the human desire to control one’s own environment. As we have tragically learned, this vision was illusory for the millions who lost their homes in foreclosure, and for those who are now debt-burdened by their home investments.
It is time we re-imagined and retooled the old, stale notions of what constitutes a stable home.
By creating varied but neighboring housing typologies—ranging from 100-square-foot apartments with communal living spaces, to 600-square-foot one-bedroom apartments, to larger three-bedroom apartments—and providing for varied forms of tenure, a community can be created based on the diversity of residents and not on antiquated, inflexible notions of housing. The college student who can only afford the 100-square-foot SRO is an asset to the single mother in the three-bedroom rental who needs to work in the afternoons. The returning veteran may not need much in the way of square footage, but will need the attention of on-site social services, within walking distance of his apartment. The architecture can and should support this type of organic connection. Seniors seeking companionship and affordability can live in a shared three-bedroom apartment that lays out exactly as a family-sized unit. Housing options can better respond to personal need rather than financial status.
Architectural, structural, and environmental innovation can all alleviate other financial issues that further burden individuals, families, and communities. Shared facilities can temper high utility costs and reduce energy use, as well as allow neighbors to pool resources to meet child- and elder-care needs. Onsite medical clinics can encourage wellness and alleviate the financial burden of emergency care on the community. Density can provide new access to services and design can provide historic goals of privacy.
It is not new to suggest that density can provide the opportunity for many to access services—but what is new is to be able to show that complex programming with diverse constituencies can not only stabilize a community socially but can also bring more financial stability to every stakeholder. The divides that are often set between social or aesthetic goals have not taken into account that housing never stands apart from the wider sense of need; program issues lay a critical foundation for architecture, and the response to specific program elements (or the lack thereof) will be the true test of the success or failure of developments that attempt to address our housing crisis. The crisis we are facing needs a holistic, practical approach to create thriving communities with policies that support these developments. Only then will we see the sea change we need.