Female Solutions to Housing Need

Women's group builds and manages units for poor families, using a design mothers prefer

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WHAT tickles Cheryl Leary about her new apartment are things like circuit breakers and windows that close. No big deal to a lot of people, but a major improvement over her last residence, which had falling ceilings, drafty windows, and a steep rent that swallowed 80 percent of her income. Last December, Ms. Leary and her six children, ages 6 months to 17 years, moved into a four-bedroom unit in Indian Village, a new low-income housing development in Providence. Like many other residents, she shed the battered furniture she had picked up and started fresh.

Leary proudly points to her new rented bedroom set. ``I'm 33 years old and I never had a bedroom set! I never had anything decent, but I was always trying to do something for myself,'' she says.

For the past decade, the Women's Development Corporation (WDC), a nonprofit group in Rhode Island run by women, has been trying to turn around the lives of low-income mothers by providing housing. Since its formation in 1979, the group has renovated or built 165 units, with another 120 under construction. Indian Village, a cluster of nine clean, brightly painted buildings with 36 units, is one of the developments.

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It all started when several women architects in New York and Boston, members of the Women's School of Planning and Architecture, a loose national network of women architects and planners, decided to create an organization that would foster the professional talents of the women in the group, as well as provide housing for poor families.

Two of the three founders, Alma Felix Green, who was involved with antipoverty groups, and Susan Aitcheson, an architect, formed the corporation. They chose to locate in Providence because it was a moderate-size city that didn't have another low-income developer.

The group has faced innumerable obstacles in getting started. ``The city and the state didn't want to help,'' Ms. Green says. ``We had to go outside the city politicians to the federal government.'' Washington supplied a variety of grants, financing, and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) discretionary funds for innovative programs.

Federal housing monies became scarce after the last of the federal subsidies to finance low-income housing development came through the pipeline in 1983. The situation tightened further in 1986 when federal tax-code changes made it unprofitable for developers to invest in low-income housing. ``The construction of low-income family units in America came to a halt,'' Green says.

Now the group combines funding from HUD, the state, the city, and private sources. Indian Village is a joint venture with the Rhode Island Indian Council.

In addition to developing housing, the corporation once ran a ``Women in Construction'' class under the now-defunct Comprehensive Employment and Training Act and a maintenance program for women.

Things are getting easier in some ways, says Ms. Aitcheson, the development director. Since the corporation is the largest producer of low-income housing in the state, the city is more favorably inclined to give the group money. Today, WDC has $13 million in real estate assets and is creating housing in five cities.

SINCE the group's inception, it has consistently tried to break the stereotype of low-income housing that has made many communities resistant to such initiatives.

The development corporation builds small buildings in scattered locations instead of clumping housing units in large central towers. The architecture is designed to blend in with the neighborhood, and there are no public ground-breakings or signs to draw attention to the fact that the developments are for low-income residents.

The group manages the developments. ``Without us doing that, we can't prove that the housing will be taken care of,'' Green says. ``We're trying to create a good name for low-income housing.''

Unlike buildings in many other low-income developments, the houses are designed with the tenants' needs in mind. Early on, the WDC asked a group of 25 mothers what they needed to make their homes work in terms of comfort, ease of maintenance, and flexibility.

The model that emerged, which is still being used today in the three- and four-bedroom, 1,100-to-1,300-square-feet units, was very different from standard plans designed for traditional families. The women wanted many bedrooms so that boys and girls could sleep separately. They were willing to have smaller bedrooms to allow space for an enlarged landing directly outside the rooms, which would encourage group play and facilitate cleanup of toys. They wanted the family activities to be in one place, so the largest space is the kitchen/dining-room/laundry area. They requested that the living room be small, separate from the kitchen, and designed as a more passive space.

Another necessity was plenty of storage. Units include large hall closets that have extra sturdy walls so that bikes can be hung from them. This helps to keep the front yards tidy as well.

The design also reflects the need for security. Because parking lots and stairwells tend to breed criminal activity, apartments have their own parking spots right in front and their own entrances. And each unit has a small, fenced-in backyard with floodlights.

The corporation's philosophy differs from traditional feminist thinking about what single mothers living in housing projects need, such as on-site day care or a market. ``The community should provide those things,'' Aitcheson says. ``We want the tenants to interact with the community to get what they need, not keep them isolated.''

Having a clean, safe, affordable, and large-enough apartment has helped stabilize the lives of Leary and her children. ``This gave me a chance to prove I can take care of my kids decent,'' she says.

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