Housing as Health Care

How New York State is transforming the supportive housing landscape.
Front view of 2388 Creston Avenue.  Photography by Ari Burling

Front view of 2388 Creston Avenue.
Photography by Ari Burling

For many, the idea of the American dream conjures images of serene suburban neighborhoods with white picket fences. But for 1.5 million Americans, just having any place to call home seems like an unattainable dream. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, in June 2015, there were 58,761 homeless people living in New York City, many of whom are elderly, children, veterans or people living with mental illness. Despite the fact that we spend $3.8 trillion annually on health care, the United States is overwhelmed with people dependent on social services.

New York State is addressing this problem with funds from the reform efforts of the Medicaid Redesign Team (MRT), by reinvesting these funds as supportive housing initiatives in communities with high volumes of high-cost Medicaid recipients. By providing these individuals with safe, stable housing, the state aims to reduce its spending on Medicaid costs and make an impact on the issue of homelessness in one fell swoop­.

Blending in with the Bronx’s bricks

Developed by Volunteers of America of Greater New York and The Housing Collaborative, the Bronx’s 2388 Creston Avenue is a 66-unit supportive and affordable housing development that trumps its neighbors in both scale and style. Though its façade harmonizes beautifully with the existing brick buildings, it has the look of an elite, luxury apartment community. Many would never know that this is the first of MRT’s supportive housing initiatives in New York. Every inch of the building has been tailored to best serve its residents—from the top of the solar-powered roof to the ground floor community room, the building reflects the great care taken to create a healthy, safe and beautiful environment for the supportive housing residents and the general public alike.

“It’s a limited budget, but [because of] the fact that you are dealing with people in the supportive housing population, we’re going to make the most of every dollar that we’re spending. You have to be creative in order to make it special,” said Fernando Villa, project architect and principal at Magnusson Architecture and Planning PC, the firm responsible for the building’s design.

“Trying to create a building that fits in with the neighborhood and the scale of the adjacent buildings was the first issue,” Villa said. With the Creston residence being flanked by five- and six-story buildings from the 1930s and 40s, Villa was challenged to implement a design that looked modern, but not out of place among the older brick structures. “The sun shades not only are a sustainable feature because they help to shade the façade, but it’s also, in terms of the architectural design, an analogy to the Bronx buildings, because the Bronx buildings all have these brick facades [with] the fire stairs on the outside,” Villa explained. “The fire stairs create a series of shadows, and it’s like a layer…that you find in the Bronx, and I wanted to recreate it in a modern way with the sun shades.”

Other modern design features on the building’s facade include metal paneling, which, when combined with the brick, creates a visual breakup of the larger scale building, and reflects light as a way to illuminate the residence in its position in the middle of the street. The main lobby’s open glass floor plan serves as “a lantern in the middle of the street,” added Villa, and the location of the service providers’ offices on the ground floor allows supportive staff to have eyes on the street at all times, ensuring that the Creston Avenue residence remains a safe haven for its residents.

Community rear yard Photo by Ari Burling

Community rear yard.
Photo by Ari Burling

Mixed populations, new perspectives

While support for the project has been widespread, Villa is all too familiar with the existing stigma attached to affordable housing in New York. “Our goal is to make this building look like it is market rate,” he said. “We know how New York is, with conversations about the poor door and rich door in different buildings. For us, in a building like this, we are so happy when people say, ‘Hey, this doesn’t look like affordable housing, this is so beautiful.’”

The traditional public housing model has proven to be inherently flawed, as it segregates low-income New Yorkers, delegating them to buildings which have become notorious for crime and disrepair. “I think the idea of mixing populations is really, really wonderful…It’s a challenge, but the results can be surprising because you really are making an impact,” observed Villa. “What I really love about this building is that you get to know the tenants in a way that you would not do if you have another type of housing project. Every time we go, you can see the change in the lives of the people who are living there, because they’re not used to having such a beautiful space.” According to Villa, the building is already fully occupied after being overwhelmed with applications from potential residents. He added, “Everyone wanted to live there, even knowing that it is going to be supportive housing.”

Healthy environment, healthy tenants

Typical studio residence. Photo by Ari Burling.

Typical studio residence.
Photo by Ari Burling.

“It makes sense when you’re trying to rebuild the lives of these people, that you have to create a safe and healthy environment,” said Villa on the commitment to incorporating energy-saving and sustainable components. The building was designed to achieve LEED Platinum status, as well as to comply with the goals of the NYSERDA Multifamily Building Performance Program for New Construction, which requires at least 20 percent energy reduction and efficiency. Meeting these standards, however, was no easy feat. “In this case, we had a client that wanted to push the limit and do a LEED platinum building. It’s a first for us. We have done LEED many times, but [platinum] is a step further,” Villa said.
The building is fully outfitted for maximum efficiency with a photovoltaic panel system on the roof, a lush green roof on the ninth floor setback, and a blue roof, which collects rainwater for irrigation; not to mention the use of materials like recycled carpet and reclaimed wood floors. However, Villa noted that sustainable design isn’t just about buying the right gizmos and gadgets; it’s about creating a space tailored for a green lifestyle.

“The green features are not just a laundry list, they really need to be part of the design,” said Villa. The Creston Avenue residence’s energy-saving features are innately a part of its design. Large Energy Star windows provide ample light, which reduces residents’ need to depend on electricity during the day. Water-saving faucets, shower heads and toilets eliminate costly water waste. The green roof helps insulate the building, while the blue roof harvests rain water to aid in irrigation of the landscaped yard. These measures aren’t just great for the planet; they can help lower extraneous energy and water costs for Creston Ave’s residents.

For people used to having less, even the small details matter, Villa observed. “They do care when they have the opportunity to have something they didn’t have before, like a nice playground or a landscaped yard, or even just knowing you’re living in a green building, which is healthier.” The reward for these efforts, according to Villa, lies in the improvement of the tenants’ quality of life. “The idea is trying to give the supportive housing residents a stable home where they can grow,” he concluded.