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On Domicile (Winter 2016)

It was a walk down memory lane reading the article by Michael Pyatok FAIA (“Unpacking the problem”). I shared much of this struggle of finding ways to fit 100 pounds of affordable housing programs in a 50-pound bag, initially working as a licensed architect and later at MassHousing (a quasi-public affordable housing finance agency from which I have only recently retired after a 30-year career). I concur with his observations about the economic intractability of providing sufficient housing, and I’m alarmed that the majority party seems hell-bent on undoing any safety net promulgated by FDR’s New Deal through Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

As we whittle away at public education and healthcare, it is a pipe dream to think that the federal government will advance a consistent commitment to safe and sanitary housing as a right. I am profoundly worried about how we will address the housing demand of seniors with no source of income, of the physically and mentally disabled, of the unemployed and unemployable. How can we be optimistic given the size of the problem? I remember a New York City housing advocate who counseled in the 1970s, in a comparably drastic economy, that we should be advocating for every­thing because there is no possibility of getting anything. “If it isn’t impossible,” he said, “don’t try to do it.”

I remember when, in dire circumstances, deals have been struck between strange bedfellows, where adversaries became partners: We’ve seen the federal government directly finance construction that was federally managed; substitution of construction dollars for voucher programs that promoted leasing of privately owned housing; federal block grant program funds used by local community development corporations to sponsor mission-driven initiatives; and, lately, corporations and high-net-worth individuals investing in the production of some of the most beautiful and green housing developments using the low-income-housing tax-credit program.

There is always a way to innovate, and we should look to the future and imagine how this can be done. If there is a disruptive technology that can be introduced to smash the incredibly high costs of construction in markets like Boston, we should experiment with it. Our attitude toward struggle is what will make the difference.

I know how hard it is to get something designed and built to reflect the shared values of diverse groups of residents and stakeholders. Pyatok’s projects are evidence of how a particularly skilled architect and his process uniquely engages the community of users, producing developments that celebrate the people who live there. Don’t you wish you could, too?

Diane Georgopulos FAIA
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Being a kid nurtured by the 1960s, I am sympathetic to Michael Pyatok’s analysis of the housing struggles in our country. However, with a Red State Congress chomping at the bit to slash domestic spending, I fear things will soon get worse.

I hope it is not heresy to say that architecture cannot nearly solve our housing problems. Perhaps we can agree that when coupled with activism and purpose, the profession gets results. After all, Pyatok’s story line and career choice were essentially about activism: Mission-driven organizing for and with the communities gave cause to the beautiful forms he created. Therein lies solutions — architecture and involvement (with no small dose of money) can be synergistic partners. Pyatok’s striking constructions help rational people wash away disparaging stereotypes and lead the way to more funding.

This new era will test us all. Funds may shrink, but principles like Pyatok’s coupled with the determination, tenacity, and imagination of people in neighborhoods and communities will continue to motivate and inspire architecture and politics — and funding — for the challenging times ahead.

Philip Giffee
Executive director, Neighborhood of Affordable Housing
East Boston

“Domicile” presented a layered array of ideas related to housing that goes beyond simply constructing 53,000 new units by 2030. Fine-grained ideas (in the “Getting to yes” essays) like subdividing existing buildings, embracing the flexibility of accessory dwelling units, or better connecting to Gateway Cities will surely contribute to a comprehensive system of housing for the region — but for those without homes, simply providing more affordable housing options might not be enough. This discussion failed to specifically address that oft-forgotten population: the homeless.

In “Welcome, home,” Jamila Bradley beautifully describes how some of us, faced with adversity, must build a home within ourselves. No population represents this concept as clearly as the homeless; lacking a physical home, they must carry their homes with them. Their “homes” must be mobile, mentally fortified, adaptable — and a source of hope in spite of jarring circumstances.

I think about this population often. Surprisingly, 60 percent of the homeless in the Boston area are families with at least one child; less than 15 percent suffer from severe mental illness or a substance abuse problem. What we can’t forget is that 100 percent are members of our community, carrying their homes into the places we create. How can we, as design professionals, support them?

Even as we turn to more robust large-scale solutions to solve these problems of housing, let’s remember the voiceless stakeholders who occupy the spaces we create whether we intend them to or not. For those who carry their homes with them, let’s make the buildings we design more welcoming, make our public spaces more kind, make our landscapes more serene. Let’s not forget to design for this population, too.

Gretchen Keillor
Planner and design strategist, Sasaki Associates
Watertown, Massachusetts

I read with interest both “Getting to yes” and “Unpacking the problem.” In 1988, the BSA Housing Committee, chaired by Lee Cott FAIA, sponsored a book I proposed, titled The Affordable Housing Challenge. Supported by a grant from the Department of Housing and Community Development, the book identi­fied a range of urban infill housing models, selected by the committee for their good design to encourage successful models, save cost, and pass on lessons learned. The 16 case studies — with floor plans, costs, and commentaries — included the Bricklayers Union townhouses at the Back of the [Mission] Hill as well as exam­ples of stick-built, panelized, and modular construction.

The book provided a springboard for me. I became a nonprofit developer with the Women’s Institute for Housing and Economic Development for 24 years, where I developed about 15 affordable housing projects, including in Boston, Newton, New Bedford, and Lawrence. It was a challenging career, but an exhilarating, rewarding one. Affordable housing development, expensive and at times mind-numbingly complex, is crucial in preserving and mending mixed-income neighborhoods.

Anne Gelbspan
Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts

Thank you for sharing an honest yet optimistic view on the Boston housing market. While the challenges are great, so, too, are the opportunities.

Whether we embrace the promise of Accessory Dwelling Units, as Matthew Littell AIA suggests, realize the potential of underused public lands as Tamara Roy AIA suggests, or convert large exist­ing units that Daniel Bluestone points out into many smaller units, there is no single solution to our housing shortage. The beauty of this is that there is something for everyone. Housing does not, and should not, fall in the “one size fits all” category. Every household is unique. Every home should be, too.

Last fall, our temporary, public exhibition on the Greenway daylighted five thought-provoking ideas for sustainable and affordable housing in Boston. By sharing even just this handful of ideas, we found that the city and its people were genuinely excited about new approaches to urban housing and design. Complete with comment cards and community discussions, Housing the Hub offered visitors the opportunity to learn about and provide feedback on ways we can build both character and capacity. Not surprisingly, different visitors felt that different design ideas were right for them, their families, and their neighborhoods. Some were comfortable with strategically adding height and density; others liked the idea of exploring smaller units, new construction methodologies, or nontra­ditional building sites.

We will have to do it all — in the right places and in the right ways. We can start by taking the great conversations started in “Domicile” and through the BSA’s other programs and publications, and initiatives such as Housing the Hub, out into every corner of our city.

By listening, talking, and working together, we can all be a part of what John McAslan describes as the “basket of solutions.”

David Nagahiro AIA
Principal, CBT