Tuesday, May 4, 2010

What Does This Post Have To Do With Affordable Housing?

Berridge Place Apartments provide low-income as well as market rate apartments in a setting which does not require the tenant to own a vehicle.

So friends, here I am again

After spending some time at the Michigan Affordable Housing Conference, I have come to realize that many people who are fighting the good fight, may not quite know what they should be fighting. I attended several sessions ranging from "Acquiring and Rehabbing Foreclosed Properties" to "Downtowns in Michigan are Alive and Well" to "Weatherizing your Historic Structure" And while all of these were interesting and informative it was the session entitled "Is Your Community Walkable?" that really surprised me.

It wasn't the topic that I found so off-putting, it was actually an impressive lecture on the "complete streets" initiative in Lansing (more on that another time) What really shocked me was the responses of the other conference goers in the room. The presentation included several slides depicting good, and bad examples of walkability in urban areas. Upon seeing an image of a compact city back-alley with decorative lighting fixtures, and well maintained back facades, a young woman behind me whispered "That must be Paris, or Prague"

A sidewalk café:
"Well sure, that works in Florida"

An entire block of parking:
"How else do they expect people to hang out there?"

An outdoor ice-skating rink:
"Ok, that is pretty cool"

But perhaps the worst comment was not made about the examples being presented, but about the presentation itself:
"What does this have to do with affordable housing?"

Despite the fact that the community activists in our country should recognize that vibrant civic street life can happen in all communities, in any climate, and without enough parking to provide one space for everyone in the metro region, the bigger issue was that this young woman, who was undoubtedly working hard to improve the lives of the less fortunate was missing a huge part of the picture. The poor, perhaps more than anyone else, benefit greatly from living in a community in which they can easily walk, bike, or take mass transit to reach their needs.

No matter how much the government subsidizes housing, no matter how many food or health benefit programs we provide, it doesn't do anyone any good if they can't afford to get to them. If we continue to build an infrastructure that forces everyone to purchase, and maintain a vehicle in order to reach every service that they require, we are putting a huge strain on an already heavily burdened population.

We are lucky though, because creating a walkable environment for the underprivileged is solved with the same simple measures that making every community walkable takes. First, things like subsidized housing should be designed with the pedestrian in mind, as well as placed in a community where many of the resident's needs are within walking distance. This means not separating the facility from the street by a sea of parking, or a large unused lawn. Also taking heed of the proximity to things like pharmacies, grocery stores, schools, and places of employment. (Another point could be made that large amounts of low-income housing should not be grouped together, but that is a whole different post) Secondly, we simply have to make the actual trip safe, and enjoyable. This means properly maintained sidewalks, functioning lighting, and hospitable mass transit stations. Remember, the less practical we make our communities for walking, the more strain we put on those who's best option is to walk.

Downtown Flint has a few examples of both tho wrong, and the right way to do low-income housing. While the 70's and 80's brought examples like Richert Manor on Court Street, which is surrounded by parking, and not particularly close to any services, recent have begun to see developments that seamlessly blend low-income housing with market rate housing, all in a walkable environment. A good example of this is the "Berridge Place Apartments" This historic hotel contains market rate, and low income units side by side. There are cafés (with outdoor seating I might add), coffee shops, places of worship, schools and a soon to be open grocery store all within a few blocks.

So when we think about providing affordable housing options to those who need it in our community, be it students on a budget, the elderly, starving artists, or families, we have to think not only of the price of the housing itself, but of how affordable it is to be in the community they are placed in. By providing the residents a community within which they can do most of their day to day errands without a personal vehicle, we also provide them a better, and less expensive quality of life.

And that, fellow community activist sitting behind me, is the point of the whole movement.

1 comment:

  1. When the price point of your "affordable," low income housing is $930 for a 3 bedroom apartment, we need to do a significant reality check on who our "low-income" citizens are and what they need. I don't qualify as low-income (what a joke that is), and I can't even afford that cost--to say nothing of the market rate--or the cost of any of the other units. The Berridge is a great development, but a terrible example (amoung a city full of terrible examples--University Park/Smith Village, Richert Manor, any apartment complex in the city, etc.) of how walkable, low-income/affordable housing can or should be done.

    When your affordable, low-income option isn't actually an option to the vast majority of low-income residents in the city, to say nothing of whether they'd even want to live there, it provides them access to the range of services they need, etc.--then there's a big disconnect that needs to be resolved in the way we're thinking about and implementing an honest walkable and affordable option to Flint residents.

    -Shaun Smakal