Micro-housing for the homeless

Here in Boston as well as in other cities there has been a lot of talk about small apartment with lower rents for young professionals.  The Boston Globe had a story last July about the effort to drop both unit size and price.

The kitchen and living area of a 530-square-foot apartment at Factory 63 in the Innovation District (top).

The kitchen and living area of a 530-square-foot apartment at Factory 63 in the Innovation District (top).

Last month, Shen [Kairos Shen, Chief Planner for the Boston Redevelopment Authority] drafted a memo to the Zoning Board of Appeals stating that the BRA supports smaller sizes for all unit types near transit stops. In addition to 450-square-foot studios, it is also allowing one bedrooms to drop to 625 square feet from 750; and two bedrooms to 850 feet from 900 feet.

The change is a compromise with critics who have pressed the Menino administration to allow units as small as 350 square feet — known as microapartments — to help cut housing costs. So far, the administration is only allowing those units to be built in the South Boston Innovation District, where it is still testing whether they are viable and being priced at affordable levels.

“So far we’re seeing those apartments rent for $2,100, $2,200, and $2,300 a month,” Shen said. “That’s beyond what everyone expected, so we have to have a better mechanism in place to ensure that the pricing is fair.”

Boston is one of many high-cost cities immersed in a nationwide debate over minimum housing sizes. San Francisco is now allowing units as small as 220 square feet, and cities from Des Moines to Chicago to Portland, Ore., are experimenting with smaller units. In Seattle, developers are building apartments as small as 140 square feet.

Having read about these small units for young professionals, the recent New York Times story about an innovative housing solution for a group of homeless persons caught my eye.  It was  a long story in the Home and Garden section which most often features high-end renovations and not affordable housing.

On Christmas Eve, Kevin Johnson received the following gifts: a bed and mattress, a blanket and sheets, a desk and chair, a toilet and sink, towels and washcloths, toothpaste and floss, and a brand-new house.

Mr. Johnson, a 48-year-old day laborer, did not find that last item beneath the Christmas tree, although it nearly would have fit. At 144 square feet — 8 by 18 feet, or roughly the dimensions of a Chevrolet Suburban — the rental house was small. Tiny would be a better descriptor. It was just half the size of the “micro” apartments that former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg proposed for New York City.

Quixote Village opened Dec. 24 on 2.1 acres in an industrial park near Washington’s capital.

Quixote Village opened Dec. 24 on 2.1 acres in an industrial park near Washington’s capital.

What really made the project unique was not only the size of the units but the fact that they were built for a specific group of homeless persons, Camp Quixote,  who were involved in siting and design.

Beyond its recent good fortune, the settlement was — and is — exceptional. Quixote Village, as it is now called, practices self-governance, with elected leadership and membership rules. While a nonprofit board called Panza funds and guides the project, needing help is not the same thing as being helpless. As Mr. Johnson likes to say, “I’m homeless, not stupid.”

A planning committee, including Mr. Johnson, collaborated with Garner Miller, an architect, to create the new village’s site layout and living model. Later, the plans were presented to an all-camp assembly. “Those were some of the best-run and most efficient meetings I’ve ever been involved in,” said Mr. Miller, a partner at MSGS Architects. “I would do those over a school board any day.”

The residents lobbied for a horseshoe layout rather than clusters of cottages, in order to minimize cliques. And they traded interior area for sitting porches. The social space lies outside the cottage. Or as Mr. Johnson put it, “If I don’t want to see anybody, I don’t have to.”

The size also cuts the cost of construction.

Some advantages to building small are obvious. Ginger Segel, of the nonprofit developer Community Frameworks, points to construction costs at Quixote Village of just $19,000 a unit (which included paying labor at the prevailing commercial wage). Showers, laundry and a shared kitchen have been concentrated in a community center. When you add in the cost of site preparation and the community building, the 30 finished units cost $88,000 each.

By comparison, Ms. Segel, 48, said, “I think the typical studio apartment for a homeless adult in western Washington costs between $200,000 and $250,000 to build.” In a sense, though, the difference is meaningless. Olympia and surrounding Thurston County hadn’t built any such housing for homeless adults since 2007.

The units, unlike the micro apartments built for young professionals, have no kitchens, laundry or shower facilities.  Those are housed in a community center.  Creating Quixote Village took state funding, the city donating the vacant industrial park land, and a number of churches that had worked with Camp Quixote.  The rent is,  for the most part, subsidized.

Residents wanted a horseshoe layout rather than a cluster and traded interior space for sitting porches.

Residents wanted a horseshoe layout rather than a cluster and traded interior space for sitting porches.

For some of the residents a unit at Quixote Village may turn out to model Housing First.

Jon Waddey … describes Quixote Village “not as an end, but a means.” He had been cooking in a restaurant that closed, and bottomed out in jail on a felony heroin possession.

Even after starting methadone, he was in no state to look for another job. “I had a huge beard,” he said. “I needed a place to shave and shower. I just needed a place to feel human.”

At other homeless shelters, the staff rummaged through your bags, breathalyzed you and kicked you out from morning to evening time. “It’s a horrible feeling having no place to be,” Mr. Waddey, 41, said. At a facility like that, “you’re really made to feel where you’re at.”

Of his new cottage, he said: “I absolutely love it. I have my little writing desk, my reading desk, a lovely view of the trees. In a way, that’s what I’ve always wanted.”

A few weeks after settling into Quixote Village, Mr. Waddey was starting to investigate how long it would take at the Evergreen State College to finish his long-deferred undergraduate degree. At night, he was making his way through the John le Carré BBC mini-series “Smiley’s People,” and cooking for friends in the community kitchen.

“I think cooking is one of the most fundamental things you can do,” Mr. Waddey said. “To feed people and see how happy it makes them.”

Is the Quixote Village model sustainable?  Can it be replicated?  Can the residents survive in a former industrial park with drainage problems?  It is much to early to tell, but it has at least provided 29 people shelter, community, and hope.

Photograph:  Boston micro unit John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Photographs of Quixote Village: Jeremy Bittermann for The New York Times

Housing the homeless

Sometimes it just takes an illness in the family or a loss of job often combined with drug or alcohol abuse to make someone homeless.  Throw in the cost of rent – even for an affordable unit – and the scarcity of rental units and you have a problem with housing the homeless.

A view of the Pine Street Inn Homeless Shelter

A view of the Pine Street Inn Homeless Shelter

Each year the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires a census of the homeless population.  This includes people living on the streets, in shelters, in motels, and anyone who, on the night of the census, is in a treatment program or hospital but has no other address.  The City of Boston does its census in December; most other localities in January.  At the end of January, the Boston Globe reported the results for Boston.

The number of men, women, and children living in shelters or on the streets in Boston continues to increase, growing 3.8 percent in 2013 over the previous year, according to an annual city tally.

The city identified 7,255 homeless people living in the city when volunteers conducted the annual homeless census last month, up from 6,992 during its 2012 count.

The census found 1,234 homeless families on the night of the survey, as well as 2,056 homeless children, the first time Boston counted more than 2,000 homeless children since the city began keeping track more than three decades ago.

That’s a lot of people.

While the raw number of homeless people in Boston continues to increase year after year, city officials stress that very few of the city’s homeless adults, just 2.5 percent, are living on the street. The number of homeless living in emergency shelters, domestic violence shelters, hospitals, and substance abuse homes saw significant increases from 2012.

The citywide census located 180 adults who were living on the street, down from 193 in 2012

This has been a very cold winter with lots of snow early.  I’ve learned that many of those 180 persons have mental health issues which make it doubtful that they would move to a shelter or accept housing.  Others prefer the streets to a crowded shelter. Boston reduced the number living on the street with a “housing first” program.  This model moves the person into housing, and then provides supportive services rather than providing services first and then shelter.  The Boston Globe explained it this way in a June 2007 story.

In the past, society’s approach to homeless people with chronic health problems such as addiction has been governed by tough love: Stay in treatment, or you don’t get the opportunity for publicly supported housing. People who could not confront their addiction, the thinking went, could not handle an apartment.

But a new approach, called “housing first,” is gathering momentum. The idea is to target the most difficult cases — the chronically homeless who make up between 10 and 20 percent of the homeless population and spend years cycling between the streets, shelters, jail cells, and emergency rooms — and give them apartments without requiring them to get sober, in the hope that having a place to live will help them address their other problems. More than 150 cities or counties around the country already have programs of some kind or plans to initiate one, and last month the Massachusetts Senate Ways and Means Committee recommended doubling the size of a small pilot program in the state. If the pilot succeeds, proponents say it could force dramatic changes in homeless policy — and a recognition that the current shelter system, built on what they call a punitive moralism, has fundamentally failed.

With money carved from various grants from the state and HUD, the Department of Neighborhood Development built or rehabbed units for people to move into.  Housing First is a collaboration between state and city agencies and several non-profits.  The stability of having a permanent place that does not required moving possession with you with a high risk of theft helps many.  It has also reduced the number of long-term stayers in shelters some of whom had been in shelters so long, they considered them home.  But there are never enough apartments.

I’m not writing this because I have a solution, far from it.  I’m writing this because we need to start thinking about housing for everyone in ways that are different from the traditional ways we think about it.  Many of us equate homeless shelters with housing for the homeless but shelters are not a long-term solution.  In a post to follow, I will talk about an experiment taking place in Washington State.

Photograph of Pine Street Inn from the Pine Street Inn website pinestreetinn.org