Affordable Housing as Social and Cultural Infrastructure

Date Posted: 11.01.2017

By Anne Torney

Cities are like coral reefs: healthy cities host and nourish people with a wide variety of backgrounds and incomes the way healthy reefs nurture a rich variety of life. Diversity is a sign of healthy cities, and permanently affordable housing is indispensable for nourishing diversity.

The current economic boom only highlights the fact that economic disparity is one of the greatest challenges of our time. While growth has brought many benefits, it has not been equally distributed. We are reminded, again and again, that we need to keep asking: a boom for whom? As Gabriel Metcalf of San Francisco Planning and Urban Research (SPUR) says, “How do we make use of what times like this have to offer? How do we make sure more people benefit? This economic boom is a good thing [but] we’ve let our housing get so expensive that it’s threatening everything else we’ve achieved.”

In both San Francisco and Seattle, we are fortunate to be working with several neighborhood-based organizations that see equity—supporting the vulnerable among us—as their mission, and permanently affordable housing as their cornerstone strategy. Like us, they view affordable housing as just as necessary as water and sewer systems, streets and subways are to healthy urban places. They see this housing as a basic right, that is, that affordable housing is indispensable infrastructure for just cities the way coral is critical infrastructure for the biodiversity in healthy reefs.

In boom economies, communities often undergo rapid change at the expense of long-time residents and cultural institutions. In these neighborhoods, affordability is key to preserving equity and cultural heritage, and encouraging cultural diversity. Stable, permanently affordable housing is social infrastructure, and essential cultural infrastructure, too.

Strengthening the Fabric of the Mission
San Francisco’s Mission District is home for much of the city’s immigrant Latinx community, many of whom migrated from Mexico, Central and South America. One of San Francisco’s most well-known neighborhoods, it is loved for its vibrant arts and cultural communities, diverse restaurants and bustling commercial life.

As is the case in many similar neighborhoods, it is this very dynamism that has made it so attractive to new residents. In the late 1980s, the Mission’s affordability and mix of residential, industrial and cultural life attracted artists and the queer community. More recently, the same qualities drew the burgeoning population of tech professionals, and it’s now one of the most unaffordable neighborhoods in the country. Since 2010, median rents have jumped 33% to more than $3,800.

Housing cost burdens for low-income residents in the Mission are staggering. A family earning the median income for Latinxs in the Mission ($47,123) would need to pay 97% of their monthly income for a typical two-bedroom apartment in their neighborhood. Due to high housing costs, the Latinx immigrant population that embodies the cultural vibrancy for which the Mission has long been known is rapidly decreasing. Once a majority in the Mission, Hispanic residents are projected to constitute only one-third of Mission residents by 2020. Out-migration from the Mission has resulted in 8,000 Latinxs displaced since 2000, more than 25% of that community.

When complete in 2020, Casa Adelante at 2060 Folsom will provide stable, permanently affordable housing for 127 low-income households adjacent to a new city park. Developed in a partnership between Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA) and Chinatown Community Development Center (Chinatown CDC), this new nine-story mixed-use building is the result of a strong, Latinx-led community organizing movement to combat displacement. Households will pay no more than one-third of their monthly income towards rent, and city’s neighborhood preference policy will ensure that 40% of the units go to Mission residents.

Common areas are designed to promote community cohesion and, like a coral reef, nurture a bustling and dynamic social ecosystem, both within the building and on surrounding streets. The ground floor will come to life with community-serving uses such as childcare, a locally-owned café, after school programs and offices for PODER, a grassroots organization instrumental in the realization of both the park and the housing project. The project contributes a new mid-block public paseo (pedestrian passageway) between the building and the park, augmenting the Mission’s rich network of urban spaces. A generous, glassy community room for parties, workshops and meetings, on-site laundry and social services surround a large sunny outdoor gathering space that acts as a kind of town square fronting the paseo and overlooking the new park. Continuing the long tradition of vibrant public art in the Mission, the building will serve as a canvas for local artists.

The building’s green design features will support the health and well-being of residents, many of whom are moving from overcrowded and substandard living conditions. The apartments, which range in size to accommodate singles and families, feature ample daylight, thermal comfort, fresh air and healthy finishes. Twenty percent of the apartments are reserved for transition-age youth including those who have aged out of foster care, a population statistically vulnerable to homelessness.

A few blocks away at 681 Florida Street, MEDA and the Tenderloin Neighborhood Community Center (TNDC) are collaborating to develop 130 new affordable apartments over an active new arts hub for the Mission. The midrise will provide studios, one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments for families at 60% of area median income or below, along with a community room, social services, family daycare and a sunny rooftop common area featuring garden plots, a lounge for resident gatherings and views of downtown.

The building will replace some of the Mission’s quickly vanishing studio and performance spaces, and promote community arts. The building’s simple massing and exterior expression is inspired by the neighborhood fabric of large masonry warehouse buildings repurposed for contemporary uses. At the ground floor, a large, flexible, high-ceilinged space suitable for production, exhibition or performance anticipates a variety of uses, pending a selection process for a Mission-based arts group as a tenant. A skylit, multi-use forecourt on Florida Street can be used for pre-function gathering, off-street loading, outdoor work space, or an open-air gallery that can be open to the public for special events. The generous double-height interior spans the length of the building with 16-foot-tall storefront windows creating a strong presence on the busy Bryant Street transit corridor. A mid-block mews features large blank walls awaiting murals by local artists, alternating with tall windows into community and arts space. As both permanently affordable housing and a center for community arts, the building extends and reinvigorates the supply of social and culture infrastructure in the Mission.

Another neighborhood non-profit developer, Mission Housing Development Corporation, in partnership with Related California, is creating a significant new housing resource at Balboa Park Upper Yard. An important transportation hub located immediately adjacent to the Balboa Park BART station and a busy interchange of Highway 280, the site in its current state feels like it could be anywhere despite the cultural vibrancy of the Outer Mission neighborhood that surrounds it. In our early community engagement meetings, and in the years of advocacy leading up to them, neighbors and local activists envisioned this development as an opportunity to provide both a significant amount of new housing and to reflect the rich identity of the neighborhood with a landmark at this transit gateway. Community members have suggested a locally owned, culturally relevant grocery and café, bikeshare and childcare as possible ground-floor uses to serve the new tenants, neighbors and the throngs of commuters who will pass by the building every day. The conversion of this former parking lot into transit, social and cultural infrastructure demonstrates the community’s ambitious vision to leverage the multiple benefits of affordable housing.

Honoring the Legacy of Seattle’s Central District
Liberty Bank was founded in 1968 by a racially diverse group as a community response to redlining (discriminatory housing and lending practices) in Seattle. For 20 years, the bank provided banking services otherwise unavailable to African Americans in the Central District, which was more than 70% black in the 1960s and early ’70s. Today, African Americans represent less than a fifth of the neighborhood’s population as the city’s tech boom raises the cost of living. A unique partnership between four long-standing community organizations—Africatown, the Black Community Impact Alliance, Community Root Housing (formerly Capitol Hill Housing) and Centerstone—envisions a new mixed-used development on the site of the historic bank as a vehicle for empowerment of the African American community.

When complete in 2019, the new Liberty Bank Building at the corner of 24th Avenue and East Union Street will mark the eastern gateway of an important neighborhood commercial corridor with prominent signage that celebrates the legacy of Liberty Bank and spaces for locally owned businesses at the ground floor. The six-story building will provide 115 units of housing affordable to people earning less than 60% of area median income in a mix of studio, one- and two-bedroom units. Residents will enjoy a community room and workshop space that flank a ground-level landscaped courtyard, and a rooftop garden and play space with great views out over the city.

Mithun developed the design with guidance from the Liberty Bank Advisory Board, members of the community, former customers and families of the founders of Liberty Bank. Inspired by traditional African patterns, the building design incorporates exterior spaces for public art. Art proposals and installations are being managed by project curators, Al Doggett Studios, with nine artists and 11 installations proposed for the project, including murals, collage portraits, drum benches, the storefront canopy ribbon and glass panels, salvaged safety deposit box doors used in the courtyard entry portal, and a prominent multi-story mural wall promoting the building’s presence from far down 24th Avenue. Plaques commemorating the history and significance of Liberty Bank will be set into distinct honey-colored brick salvaged from the original building encircling the ground floor. Inside, the original bank vault door is a focal point of the lobby, flanked by the artists’ work.

In the words of the project partners, the project “brings arts, culture, affordable commercial space and affordable housing together under one roof to honor, preserve, promote and develop the legacy and presence of Black Americans and newly arrived Africans in Seattle’s Central District as a vibrant community and unique urban experience.”

Wyking Garrett, grandson of Liberty Bank founder Holbrooke L. Garrett, explains “As the Central District has been home to the Black community in Seattle for over 130 years… this project represents a model for development that honors community legacy, leverages social and cultural capital, and is important step toward realizing the equity, shared prosperity and social justice goals of Seattle and Martin Luther King County. Mitigating displacement and maintaining affordability is critical to nurturing diversity and making Seattle a world-class city and not a one-class city.”

Explore additional affordable housing projects by Mithun.