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Mike moved into Dove Street Independent Housing five years ago, uncertain about his future and badly in need of a break. He was disabled, he was on his own, and he was adrift.

The building that became his home would be noticed on any downtown Albany street, because new brick stands out in a row of weathered 19th-century townhouses. But in every other way in the seven years since it opened, Dove Street Independent Housing has blended so seamlessly into its Hudson/Park surroundings that its neighbors view it as just another building on the block, and one with standout good looks at that.

Dove Street Independent Housing, on a worn block between Elm Street and Myrtle Avenue in back of the Delaware Avenue Price Chopper, contains subsidized apartments for disabled Capital Region residents. But its detailed brick façade, wide entranceway and generous windows so belie the common perception of affordable housing that Cares Inc., the agency that manages the building, regularly fields inquiries from well-heeled passersby wondering if they can look at any condo units inside that might be on the market.

For Mike, 32, Dove Street Independent Housing proved a safe haven while he redirected his life. This month, he will enter the College of St. Rose to pursue a degree in early-childhood education.

“I’m going to take full advantage of being here for the next couple of years, while I finish my master’s degree, and then I’ll be moving on,” he says.

The Dove Street building is affordable housing at its best: functional and appealing, suited to the needs of its inhabitants and accepted by its neighbors. It was one of 18 such developments featured in the exhibit Affordable Housing: Designing an American Asset, which ran from February through last weekend at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. In a city like Albany, where bleak reminders of the high-rise phase of affordable housing still dot the skyline, the Dove Street Independent Housing offers another way of thinking.

The building was neither excessively complicated to design nor impossibly expensive to construct. Why, then, can’t all affordable housing look like this?

The answer has to do with philosophies about low-income urban families that didn’t change with the times; steady cutbacks in funding and housing stock dating to the Reagan administration; and a collective bureaucratic mentality in the government’s housing industry that seemed to reward the concepts of quick, cheap and ugly.

Home sweet housing: Mike and Bowser outside their Dove Street domicile.

Despite those obstacles, a growing number of socially conscious architects around the country say that affordable housing can look better, work better and last longer, and they are setting out to prove their point.

“There’s not an extra cost for design,” says Kathy Dorgan, the architect who designed Dove Street Independent Housing. “If you go to the paint store and say, ‘I want a set of colors that don’t match,’ or you coordinate your colors, you’re going to pay the same. The aesthetics of good design don’t cost more. It is more work to figure it out.”

Deane Evans runs a research center at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, N.J. He is an architect, a longtime consultant to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and a former vice president for research at the American Institute of Architecture. He’s also an impassioned advocate of good design in affordable housing who talks about airflow and function in a building like a prophet who realizes he’s ahead of his time. The way to enlightenment is clear; it’s the rest of the world that needs to catch up.

Four years ago, HUD asked Evans to develop a Web-based tool for incorporating good design in affordable housing. That was during the Andrew Cuomo administration of HUD, which many public-housing advocates now look back on as a halcyon time, when the focus was actually on housing. Although some critics say that Cuomo overemphasized transitional housing at the expense of more long-range solutions, especially in New York City, the Bush administration has carried “long range” to an extreme by emphasizing home ownership over subsidized rental housing. Home ownership is a parallel concept to the Republican push for marriage as a solution to poverty, and is about as far from transitional housing as you can get.

But back in 2000, the Clinton administration was interested in what design advocates like Evans had to say, and the result of the HUD invitation to Evans was a Web-based guidebook known as the Affordable Housing Design Advisor (www.designadvisor.org). The Design Advisor, as it is commonly known, offers architects, planners and housing agencies 20 steps to follow in developing quality design and a wealth of ideas and concepts, spelled out in plain English and easy to navigate. The Design Advisor also offers 80 case studies, including Dove Street Independent Housing, and four maxims for achieving affordable housing with an enduring design. Those maxims state that the housing should meet the user’s needs; should understand and respond to the physical surroundings of its neighborhood; should enhance its neighborhood; and should be built to last.

Think of Evans’ model as his answer to 40 years of uninspired public housing design that was devoid of innovative details and resulted in the kind of structures where, as he puts it, “you get shelter, but not a really good project.” (Evans, like other architects, uses the word ‘project’ when referring to a building that’s gone from the design phase to a finished structure, and not in the common but pejorative sense as a synonym for run-down public housing.)

The Design Advisor model has taken on the life of a sleeper movie or a garage band, known and loved to a small group of cult fans and growing in reputation mostly by word of mouth. After Evans and the advisory group he worked with completed the Web model, they asked HUD for money to market the Design Advisor, to no avail.

“Anecdotally, it seems to be getting more well-known,” Evans says. “I don’t know how well it’s being used. The administration’s changed. I don’t think this is on anybody’s radar screen right now. It’s a great tool, and the problem is, it’s not well-enough known.”

Not to be daunted, Evans and the advisory group are about to launch the “Campaign for Affordable Housing Design,” which will set up an ongoing electronic newsletter about good housing design to be sent to architects, public planners, state housing agencies and local housing authorities. Updates will come in small, easy-to-read snippets, on topics such as why doors count. (The answer, according to Evans: Doors make a huge and critically important first impression about the rest of the building.)

“The theme is always that design matters,” Evans says. “The idea is just to keep putting out there to people in the field that this is important, this is fun.”

What’s not fun is trying to manage public housing on a decreasing public budget, one that has to stretch far enough to cover repairs, maintenance and upgrades on the existing stock while also going toward new construction. That’s the problem facing the Albany Housing Authority, and countless other housing authorities around the country.

Laura Moody, the modernization coordinator for the Albany Housing Authority, oversees the agency’s capital budget. She’s watched for the last 20 years as the number of new units built locally and around the country has shrunk. (Each “unit” is one apartment in a public-housing development.)

“In the ’80s, there might have been 1,000 units built across the country, and if you look at the statistics that HUD puts out, the need is a couple million,” Moody says. “You had that density; now the whole federal policy is to decrease that density.”

Lending a hand: David Rowley of Cares Inc.

Those high-rise public-housing towers, where two dozen unimaginative floors were stacked on top of each other, are a thing of the past. They were ugly, they were cheap, and cheaply made, and they looked more like prisons than homes. You don’t hear anyone in public housing waxing nostalgic about high-rise towers. But they had one redeeming feature, ugly and unworkable as they were: They made incredible use of existing space. The same building footprint that might have carried hundreds of high-rise apartments in the 1960s will carry two stories and a dozen apartments today.

At the same time, the federal government started a massive, nationwide effort to tear down public housing that was deemed hopelessly outdated, dangerous and decrepit.

That effort continued into the 1990s, as cities first emptied and then imploded whole developments, most of them high-rise towers that had become emblematic of the problems facing public housing. The elevators didn’t work, the stairwells were deadly unlit traps, and gangs of children and teenagers seemed to be running the places. As Moody points out, many of these towers were built in the 1950s for low- to middle-income, two-parent families and were geared for a more genteel time, when architects envisioned balconies as gathering places instead of launching pads for airborne objects.

Buildings that didn’t get torn down got renovated.

“There is, at least in the federal level, as far as these new revitalization efforts go, a push to get better design,” Moody says. “The downside of that is just to do the construction itself, you often have to do different subsidies from a lot of different pots. It’s sort of like an uphill battle.”

Public-housing developments aren’t the only places that struggle with this dilemma: Urban school systems for years have debated whether to build new schools or renovate existing ones in the face of flat budgets and scarce state funding. As with public-housing developments, school-construction projects must meet an incredibly complicated set of design criteria before they can qualify for state and federal funding for new construction or renovation. But school systems are far more in the public spotlight and conscience than public housing, because major school construction projects usually go before voters in a referendum. In the weeks leading up to a spending vote, school administrators can launch a public-relations campaign to drum up sympathy for their financial woes. It’s much harder to rouse public sympathy for the funding plight of urban public housing.

The Albany Housing Authority gets about $2 million a year in renovation funds, says Gary Hallock, the Authority’s director of housing finance programs. Precious little of that money can go for design innovation, because it also has to cover mandated health and safety upgrades.

The money is doled out differently, too, in a far more formulaic manner than it used to be, Moody notes. Communities have to leverage more of their costs for public housing, and what is available directly from the federal government is harder to obtain. In the 1980s, the Albany Housing Authority competed successfully for renovation money distributed through competitive grants. Now, funding is distributed according to a formula that factors in the age of the development, the type of housing it contains, the design, the region where it was built, and its financial needs. The factors are run through a computer program that assesses them and then assigns dollars.

Despite the financial pressures that housing authorities face, the good-design movement is having some effect, Moody says. Multi-story public-housing towers are rarely built these days; those that are tend to be lower and more innovative in their design. Housing authorities—including Albany—are considering details that once would have been unimaginable in public housing, such as hardwood floors, which are several dollars per square foot more expensive than the standard ceramic or linoleum floors.

“But the advantages of the more expensive finishes is that they’re going to be more durable,” Moody says. “I do believe it’s getting more prevalent.”

The eight-unit, two-story Dove Street Independent Housing building cost about $750,000 to develop when the now-defunct Capitol Hill Improvement Corp. built it in 1997. The one-bedroom apartments have three different layouts; each one is about 700 square feet. All have hardwood floors, a washer and dryer and wood trim around the doors and closets. Natural light pours into even ground-level apartments, and the back windows overlook a garden. Tenants have a fair amount of latitude about the décor; they can paint their units and have dogs or cats. Mike, the tenant planning on going back to college, has his beloved beagle, Bowser, with him. (Management reserves the right to prohibit oversized dogs.)

“It’s more expensive to do this way; it’s cheaper to build straight up, and have carbon-copy units,” says David Rowley, associate director of Cares Inc., the private, nonprofit agency that manages the building and connects homeless and disabled people with housing and other services.

Matt Graves, the property manager, adds that “it’s incredibly hard to maintain it at this level. It takes a lot of hands-on commitment to keep this going.”

The tenants seem to appreciate that, says Mike.

“As you can see, it’s just beautiful,” he says, proudly looking around his neatly furnished living room. “But also, you’ve got to take pride where you live, as well. That makes a huge difference.”

There is no across-the-board rent; each tenant’s monthly payment is calculated according to his or her circumstances. Whatever the payment, however, it is never more than 30 percent of the tenant’s monthly income. That’s the standard for affordable housing, Rowley says.

Turnover in the building is infrequent. Dove Street is permanent, not transitional, housing, which means that tenants can stay as long as they wish.

By any measure, Dove Street is a bargain. Given its amenities, it’s a rare find in public housing.

Rowley notes that figures compiled by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a national housing advocacy group, place the fair-market rent in Albany, Troy and Schenectady at $634 for a two- bedroom apartment. Using the standard formula of 30 percent of a person’s income as an acceptable rent threshold for low-income tenants, however, a minimum-wage earner making $5.15 an hour could afford a monthly rent of no more than $268, while a tenant living on Supplemental Security Income could afford no more than $192 a month for rent.

“We make sure it’s affordable,” Rowley says of the Dove Street building. “This is housing for folks who were formerly homeless. These are folks who have lived hard lives already, even if they are young.”

‘I think there’s an incredible increase in awareness of the value of design,” says Kathy Dorgan, the architect of Dove Street Independent Housing.

“If you talk to people, they’ll say, ‘Well, HUD doesn’t want good design,’” Dorgan adds. “That’s not true anymore.”

It is true that architects and planners and housing agencies don’t get much credit for good design, and that good design is more work than quick, cheap design. In the current formulaic way of divvying up limited dollars for new construction or renovation of affordable housing, “it’s probably 5 percent more expensive and 5 percent harder to make a beautiful project, but it’s zero points for good design,” Dorgan says.

Dorgan is an architect in private practice in Connecticut, and housing issues are her passion. She is also a past executive director of the Capitol Hill Improvement Corp., but left that position before the group built Dove Street, and before Capitol Hill dissolved in 2000. The group hired her in 1997 to design Dove Street.

Dorgan, a graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, is making periodic trips back to Troy this summer as the owner’s representative during the renovation of the Troy Housing Authority’s Kennedy Towers, a 40-year-old high-rise public-housing development for senior residents.

She is an adherent of the principles found in Deane Evans’ Affordable Housing Design Advisor model, taking to heart the injunction that a new building should fit into the neighborhood along with the old buildings. She knew that Dove Street would have to be one large structure instead of a series of connected townhouses, because the elevator could not fit into a smaller building. So she surveyed the surrounding streets, observing how the occasional oversized buildings of decades past had settled into their blocks. And then she blended bits of their designs into hers. Windows; lots of windows. Brick set into the façade in different patterns and colors. Grand entranceways and front stoops.

“Right now, it doesn’t cost more to buy a glass window than to build a brick wall,” Dorgan says. “That was different in 1800.”

Dove Street Independent Housing is in a decidedly mixed section of Albany. There are activist homeowners concerned about their buildings, and there are abandoned houses so decrepit that their windows and doors are gone and their interiors are rotting. But there are also signs that this south end of Dove Street is stirring—city building permits are posted in a few buildings along the block and on adjacent streets, and construction dumpsters dot the neighborhood.

Dorgan sees the street the way it looks now, and she also sees the street the way it could look in a generation: a stretch of rescued houses, beautifully restored, framing Dove Street Independent Housing. And she sees her building, looking just fine and mellowing with age as it holds its place in a neighborhood where 100 years is nothing to a well-designed home.

Says Dorgan: “I certainly hope Dove Street is there in 130 years, being used.”


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