More Than a Roof

It’s common for most people to make a distinction between “house” and “home.” One word defines a roof over one’s head, nothing more, nothing less; the other often signifies something more complicated and even profound. Home conjures up images of family and safety, a haven that not only protects and nurtures the individuals within but also encourages a sense of limitless opportunities beyond its four walls.

How can we build housing for low-income families that is more like home? That might sound like a lot to demand of mere bricks and mortar, but it is consistent with the broad range of activities that we call community development. Unemployment, poor health, unsafe housing conditions, inadequate education and discrimination all chip away at our ability to make a home. What would it take for us to build housing that fostered a sense of well-being? And where would we begin?

For Nancy Biberman, founder and president of the Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation, the answer came in the rehabilitation of an old building in the Bronx. Biberman realized that beautiful architecture and design are as critical to low-income housing as they are to market rate and luxury housing – and perhaps even more so. “Without any other release valves, the beauty and tranquility of home takes on great urgency for low-income families,” she writes. “Beauty is not a luxury.” Tellingly, she had to battle government lenders and overseers, who constantly reminded her that high ceilings, oak cabinets and ceramic tiles did not conform to low-income housing standards. As Susan Saegert points out, Biberman applied a simple standard: Would she and her family want to live there?

Seven years after the opening of what is now called Urban Horizons, Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani interviewed tenants and photographed their apartments. In pictures and words, it becomes clear exactly how the aesthetics of Urban Horizons has changed their lives, and how they see the future for themselves and their children. As one tenant says: “I walk in here, and I’m home.”

Chicago Hope
Chicago’s Presidential Towers is a massive four-tower development with all the amenities we have come to expect from luxury housing: the self-contained community has a health club, retail shops, a restaurant and round-the-clock security. It also has massive public subsidies from the federal and city government. While gorging themselves at the public trough, the developers did everything they could to avoid their obligations to provide affordable units. Tiffany A. Meier and D. Bradford Hunt describe how the Chicago Coalition used that situation as a catalyst for organizing, honing their tactics and gaining a voice for the Skid Row community locked out of the 2,000-plus apartments.

Also in This Issue
Citywide planning is most effective when it engages the entire community in the process, and models exist in places like Minneapolis and Cleveland that show it can be done. In Newark, NJ, community-based organizations have done their homework on what their communities need (schools and parks top the list) and hope to influence the city’s master plan that is scheduled to be unveiled this year.

Mount Laurel was the legislative ruling that was supposed to spread low- and moderate-income housing equitably across the largely suburban state of New Jersey. Although the results were modest compared to the need, for almost two decades the state led the nation in opening the suburbs to affordable housing. NHI Research Director Alan Mallach describes how the state is proposing new rules based on flawed statistics in a way that may ultimately eviscerate Mount Laurel. As states across the nation consider their own form of inclusionary housing legislation, they should pay close attention to New Jersey’s impending disaster.

New to You
With this issue we are introducing a new department, Voices from the Field. Associate Editor Nichole Brown will be interviewing community development practitioners across the country about the work they do and the specific challenges they face in realizing the goals of their communities.

Welcome
Also beginning with this issue, Shelterforce becomes a member benefit of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. We applaud NCRC’s members for their leadership in the fair lending and economic justice struggle and welcome them to our readership.

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