A Seat at the Table
By Zach Mortice
February 3, 2020
To design affordable housing in African American neighborhoods, architects navigate class, race, identity, and community in a privatized system. But can things get better?
Early in the development of the Ruth Ellis Clairmount Center in Detroit, an LGBTQ+ affordable housing and outreach center that focuses on young people of color, Jack Schroeder, AIA, of Landon Bone Baker (LBB) knew there would be an arts component to the mostly residential project, but he wasn’t quite clear on what form it would take.
During these conversations, people kept talking about “balls.” “Debutante balls?” he wondered. Not quite. Instead, the community needed a space to prepare for and mount exhibitions that are fashion shows with elements of dance, where participants design and tailor their own clothes, and strut a runway in them. Emanating out of the minority LGBTQ+ community of New York City and documented by the 1991 movie “Paris is Burning”, these balls are radically creative expressions of identity and sexuality from an intensely marginalized people. “It was totally new to me,” says Schroeder. “It’s kind of amazing.”
So, the building LBB designed featured a large ground-floor town hall and lobby area, generous enough to work as a gathering and event space. There’s an in-house salon for balls (and job training), as well as an art and dance studio on the fourth floor.
Community members at the Ruth Ellis Clairmount Center understand that the wider neighborhood might not feel the same way about showcasing non-heteronormative identities as they do, and as such, the balls are often presented as private events for the community, and that has specific architectural requirements. The town hall is two stories tall, with a second-floor interior residential hall partially visible through the lobby. Here, the glass is treated with an opaque glazing from the bottom to top, making only silhouettes visible. The Ruth Ellis Clairmount Center wanted to broadcast activity and vitality, but perhaps not who was wearing what on their way to the runway, or their apartment. To obscure the identity of a taller trans woman in heels, for example, this section of glass “can’t be 5 foot 6 inches,” says Schroeder—it needs to be taller.
It’s one granular detail that addresses client and context with simple architectonic solutions, and its apparent novelty speaks to the extent to which these clients have been boxed out of development and investment cycles by racism and homophobia. It’s also a reminder that architects, especially when working with marginalized people, need to ask questions, listen, and push themselves beyond their own lived experiences in order to help grow communities organically, with deference to existing institutions, formal and informal. Developed by Full Circle Communities, the project will cost approximately $15 million and will provide 35 housing units.
The key community units at the Ruth Ellis Clairmount Center are what’s called “families of choice,” and they inform nearly every element of the facility’s architecture. One of the main goals of the project, to begin construction in the spring, is to address the incredible amount of housing insecurity LGBTQ+ youth face. (A recent University of Chicago study found that they’re more than twice as likely to be homeless as non-LGBTQ+ peers). The building will target people ages 18–25, most of whom will require a documented history of homelessness to get to move in; their rent will be deeply subsidized by tax credits. These “families of choice” are peer-based networks of support that step in when youth are estranged from their nuclear and extended families. “It’s literally a structured family, and the alliances within that family [are] intensely strong and fierce, also highly emotional and volatile, like any real family,” says Jerry Peterson, the center’s executive director. “You literally have aunties, mothers, grandmas, and uncles. If they have a space, they’re going to bring in 5–6 people from their family, and they’re going to get evicted.”
The project’s funding structures didn’t allow for purely communal living. So LBB designed small units with a just a few key shared community spaces, like the second-floor kitchen and community room, and the thirdfloor fitness area and lounge. The ground floor will also contain a health clinic, as well as a full commercial kitchen and entrepreneurship center, for job training programs.
Given the epidemic levels of violence that LGBTQ+ communities see, ensuring security was one of Schroeder’s primary design problems. (Nearly half of bisexual women have been raped, and 53% of transgender African Americans have been sexually assaulted, according to the Human Rights Campaign.)
The main entrance of the building is located as close to the street and public transit as possible, and circulation patterns allow for a series of security checkpoints and visual connection to the entries. From the main entrance, residents can immediately split off and access secure residential floors separately, away from more public functions on the ground floor. These considerations are a necessity, says Brandi Smith, a trans woman of color who grew up with the program as a teenager, and now works at Ruth Ellis Clairmount Center. People in her community “don’t have a safe haven to go if they have to do survival sex work,” she says. Fewer steps to a door that locks could save the lives of “girls that may have to run from a john.”
These aren’t concerns most architecture clients worry about, and it was an adjustment for Schroeder and his team. “There are moments where we haven’t gotten there along the way, and they’ve let us know, ‘That still doesn’t feel right,’ and after the fourth [or] fifth iteration, we’re getting to a point where it feels safe, but still open.”
For an anecdotal, but still typical, illustration of the need for affordable housing in African American neighborhoods, consider that developer Torrey Barrett received 1,000 applications for the 58 units at his KLEO Art Residences on Chicago’s South Side. Eighty percent of the units are subsidized, targeted to Chicagoans making 60% of the area median income, and they drew applicants from across the city, even the affluent North Side. Opened in September, the residences are an offshoot of founder Barrett’s KLEO Community Family Life Center, which focuses on anti-violence and education work. Its goal is to “eradicate violence by bringing opportunity to a population that’s less fortunate,” Barrett says.
Marketed to creative people (and developed by Brinshore), Barrett estimates that more than half of KLEO’s residents work in the arts. David Anthony Geary, a painter and muralist, was one of the lucky ones. Getting an apartment ended more than a year of couch-surfing and sleeping in his studio. “This made it possible to be able to keep my studio,” he says. “I couldn’t let go of my studio, because that’s my primary source of income.” His new apartment building also gave him a project. He painted a mural in the lobby depicting five inspirational South Side women who work in the arts, each in a neon hue.
The making and exhibition of art informs much of the building’s design, by local firm JGMA. Each floor is color coded, with elevator lobby furniture and art by local artists. (One photo collage posits legends of black liberation as 1980s-hip-hop b-boys: James Baldwin in an Adidas tracksuit, Frederick Douglas in Nikes). There are three ground-floor studios for artists, with plywood walls and glass garage doors. “It’s meant to be [a] street market, where you can put your art [outside] and sell it, and make the building more permeable,” says JGMA founder and president Juan Moreno, AIA.
Moreno hopes the crush of people from all over the city vying to get into KLEO might erode Chicago’s entrenched segregation a bit, but understands it’s also indicative of how little affordable housing there is. How much agency do architects really have to change this? “The truthful answer is, I don’t know,” says Moreno. “It’s such a complex and difficult question. As a designer, what I hope is that the buildings become an extension of what’s already there.”
Art, as a signifier of cultural ownership and history, is similarly the focus of Midtown Public Square in Seattle, a mixed-income residential development that will offer 428 units, 30% of which will be affordable, targeted at residents making 60% to 80% of the area median income. These subsidies are financed by tax exemptions that incentivize the development of affordable housing, deployed in the Central District neighborhood that’s been subject to severe gentrification and displacement. In the 1960s and ’70s, the Central District was more than 70% African American. Since then, tech money has flooded the entire city, pushing African Americans out, and today the Central District is less than 20% black.
The building is being developed by Lake Union Partners, which primarily focuses on market-rate housing, and designed by the Seattle-based Weinstein A+U. They’ve taken a strong interest in the Central District and have completed several projects in the area. Covering 4 acres and centered on the intersection of 23rd and Union, the projects are located at the historic heart of Seattle’s African American community, near where the first black-owned bank in the Pacific Northwest was founded.
Patrick Foley of Lake Union Partners says the question that guided this project was: “What little part can we do to help restore some of that lost culture?”
The answer has been to commission a building that best represents the community. Determining the best ways to curate and present this art took many rounds of sensitive community feedback. “There was a recognition early on that an all-white design team, even if we did our best to understand the community and respond thoughtfully, might be missing critical insight, [and] we weren’t going to be carrying much weight with the community,” says Weinstein A+U’s Davila Parker-Garcia, the building’s architect.
So her firm brought in African American architect Rico Quirindongo, AIA, of Seattle’s DLR Group to make sure the public had a conduit to the design team they felt comfortable with, and could advocate for their interests. “The community wanted to ensure that, while this property is being privately developed, it was a place [where] the public and the African American community would still have a seat at that table,” he says.
As such, much of the feedback the architects got from the public was focused on making its quasi-public spaces, like its courtyard, as public as possible, and accessible beyond residents of the building. “There was a worry that if the neighborhood wasn’t really allowed to stake a significant claim on that space, it could eventually just get gated off,” Parker-Garcia says.
Public art is used as a signpost to welcome people into the space, which will be filled with small black-owned businesses that get a discount on rent. Throughout, lighting installations and murals will beckon visitors into the courtyard. One series of murals will feature interpretative takes on “faces of the community,” stretched across five stories, says Quirindongo. “[That was] in response to the community saying they wanted to literally see themselves on this project.”
After initially purchasing a larger parcel for Midtown Public Square, Lake Union Partners sold 20% of the site to the Central District’s minority-owned Africatown Community Land Trust to develop more affordable housing, but that project still has not broken ground, though Midtown Public Square is already under construction. “The minority development immediately adjacent, which is one-fifth its size, only recently received funding, which puts it two years behind the development of the rest of the block. There is not parity, and it doesn’t speak well to how development is happening in the neighborhood.”
It’s a disparity that’s prompted him to ask: “What is the percentage of affordable units that should be a part of these developments? What is the public role in evaluation of projects? What’s the push-pull between public input and private developers being able to do what they need to get the value that they’re looking for? It’s a delicate balance.”
For Lake Union Partners, Foley says that few local developers or nonprofits make the sorts of voluntary commitments to affordability and cultural history that his firm is making. “We’re taking concrete steps to welcome people back to the neighborhood who left 10, 20, 30 years ago,” he says.
But there’s no reason to believe the hundreds of new market-rate units his company has brought online won’t further gentrify the area.
And that’s the contradiction that architects like Quirindongo face when trying to design and build affordable housing. They’re obligated to represent the community, but with the widespread and ongoing privatization of public housing, the community is not the ultimate client. “It’s not an easy thing to say ‘The community would like more open space,’ because open space does not necessarily create more cashflow for a developer,” says Kimberly Dowdell, AIA, 2019–2020 National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) president. Dowdell says successfully building affordable housing requires “tri-sector collaboration”: a public mandate, private money, and nonprofit administration and services. “In the current system, architects have agency to articulate solutions that a developer could take or not take,” she says. “We don’t want to see anyone get displaced, but unfortunately that’s the reality of the situation. The question becomes: How can we deploy tri-sector problem-solving to close those gaps as much as we can?”
For grassroots activists on the ground, that’s not good enough. Naomi Davis, founder of Blacks in Green, a sustainable community development nonprofit on Chicago’s South Side, decries how privatized development of affordable housing and the tax credit system hands responsibility to private companies. “That’s not working for black people,” she says.
One particular way the current system of affordable housing development fails marginalized communities, she says, is by focusing almost exclusively on rentals at the expense of ownership. “Black people need to own their own communities,” she says. “We’re here to build black wealth, period. If the federal government is paying $5,100 a month to rent an apartment, they could pay $5,100 dollars a month to pay a mortgage.”
Davis is working towards remedying this wealth gap in her own community of Woodlawn, which is subject to rising gentrification pressure as the completion of the Obama Presidential Center looms on the horizon. She’s been working with Michael Sorkin on his Greenfill: House as Garden model of infill housing. Davis intends to refine this model into an owner-occupied four-flat apartment building with three renters. Made from mass timber, and with deep setbacks for daylighting, Greenfill: House as Garden addresses wealth inequalities and resilience in the face of a climate change crisis that will imperil America’s most marginalized and vulnerable citizens first, namely Davis’s neighbors. It would offer a “homesteading” program, she says; orchards, vegetable gardens, and root cellars, “because we believe we are heading into a firestorm. We believe that there’s going to be a time when the truck don’t come.” For many African Americans, especially those struggling to find affordable housing, these kinds of structural deprivations are already here, and will increase as climate change destabilizes everything. For example, at least 14% of public housing units will be inundated and destroyed by climate change before the century is over, according to the Urban Institute and the Furman Center. The question at hand is how prepared our current system of housing development, with its compromises and diffused accountability, is to handle that.
And many architects working in affordable housing don’t think we can deal with today’s housing crisis—let alone tomorrow’s—in the current policy regime. One potential solution is the Green New Deal, whose proponents have seized on housing as a key lever, just as New Dealers did generations before. “I think that means there is a direct investment in housing by various levels of government, as it used to be,” Sorkin says. “A sensitive government working with good architects could definitely pull it off. We could do it.”