Comfort and Style for the Homeless
NEW YORK — The lights in the hall have the simple elegance you would expect from a first-class hotel. The common areas have comfortable settees. And the rooms include color television sets and microwaves.
But this is not the Waldorf-Astoria. It is a modern version of a single-room occupancy (SRO) hotel - sometimes called a flophouse - in the rough, tough Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn in New York. Its 40 residents are formerly homeless drug addicts with "special needs."
The Brooklyn building is the latest thinking on SROs. Architects Joseph Sultan and Warren Gran of Gran Sultan Associates worked with six nonprofit agencies that currently run such residences to determine what works. They visited the fleabags. And they developed a questionnaire for the tenants of such low-income lodging.
"The new SROs are small studios, each with its own bathroom and kitchenette so people can live there privately and securely," says Mr. Sultan.
Some of the essential components of the new residences include a density that fits into a neighborhood, social services delivered directly to the buildings, and a nonintrusive security system. The details, such as the use of warm lighting and colors, eliminate any institutional feeling.
Such residences, run by nonprofits, are increasingly becoming a part of some cities' planning as mayors, facing budget problems, try to reduce their shelter populations. Since 1993, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has spent $450 million for 9,744 beds.
The agency, working in partnership with nonprofits, provides SRO rehabilitation funds and rental assistance. "SROs have become an important part of what a community does to address homelessness," says HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo.
No longer housing of last resort
Last year, as part of a federal program, New York's Department of Housing Preservation and Development loaned out $38 million to nonprofit groups to build adult lodgings. The city says it is adding about 300 new beds per year either through renovation or new construction, although observers say it is a very slow process.
This is a real reversal of fortune for such single-adult housing, which had long been considered a residence of last resort for individuals coping with problems like substance abuse.
As people with mental problems were deinstitutionalized, they moved into SRO housing that accepted rent on a weekly basis. Starting in the mid-1970s, however, gentrification destroyed more than 1 million units. In New York, more than 100,000 rooms disappeared under the bulldozers' blade.
Although New York has tried to clean up its single adult housing, it still exists on the Bowery, a gritty neighborhood where people rent cubicles for $10 a night. Similar low-income housing exits in most cities.
"A lot of people said there was a correlation between the number of homeless versus the destruction," says Julie Sandorf, the president of the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH), a national organization that helps nonprofits develop housing for the homeless. "It was an undervalued resource but I think in hindsight people realize it was a necessary piece of the affordable housing inventory."
As cities began to contemplate building new single-adult housing, Sandorf's organization realized there was a need for some structure. So the group asked Sultan and his partner, Warren Gran, to produce a design manual for "service enriched housing." The end result is a 157-page book of architectural drawings and recommendations. "We use the manual extensively across the country to inform nonprofits, architects, and government funders what are the best design practices," Sandorf says. A. Robin McFarland of the Valley Housing Development Corp. in Fountain Hill, Pa., says she has a copy of the design manual because it is a concept that could be used in the Lehigh Valley, north of Philadelphia. She notes that the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $515 per month. People with mental disabilities receive $511 per month from Supplemental Security Income, a part of Social Security. "There is obviously a need for affordable housing and an SRO fits their needs," she says.
Gran and Sultan were challenged to produce housing with room for services, in a small space and on a modest budget of $60,000 to $65,000 per room, about half the cost of conventional housing in New York. They discovered, for example, that prefabricated kitchenettes that would fit their space did not include drawers. "This is not normal so we had to design our own," says Sultan.
Little design touches make a difference
And since one of the goals is independent living, they added a small detail - a broom closet. "You can't put your broom in with your clothes or in the bathtub," Sultan says. Many of these touches are codified in the manual.
Despite the small rooms, the residents seem happy. The studios are bright and secure. Mario Capuano, who was formerly homeless, says the residence provides him with people to support him and talk to him - a sense of community. He uses the kitchen to cook his own meals. "Basically, I'm independent," says Mr. Capuano.
On a recent day, Edgar Droz proudly showed off his home.
"I came with just my clothes," says Mr. Droz, who has decorated his room with pictures of wild animals and a large Puerto Rican flag. "I've come a long way," says Droz, who tells a visitor he has been drug-free for seven months and four days. The residence, he says, "has given me my freedom."
* For a copy of the design manual, send a check for $20 to CSH 342 Madison Avenue, Suite 505, New York, NY 10173.
A Caring Atmosphere Helps the Homeless
What makes up a home for the homeless single adult? According to the Service Enriched Housing Design Manual, written by architects Joe Sultan and Warren Gran, the homeless need:
*A home-like atmosphere, including a kitchenette and a separate area for living and dining.
* Safety and privacy, including a private bath.
* Support services, such as social workers, meetings with Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.
*The opportunity for socialization with their fellow residents through common rooms such as a dining room, activity room, and smaller lounges.