Beautiful on its own

Boulder County housing authorities employ human-focused design to improve outcomes for affordable housing residents

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John R. Ford

After leading the way up three flights of stairs, Laura Sheinbaum opens the door of an empty two-bedroom corner apartment at 30Pearl, one of Boulder’s newest mixed-use neighborhoods. 

“I think walking in here, you probably wouldn’t know it’s affordable at all,” Sheinbaum says as we move through the open plan kitchen and living room. Mid-day sun floods south- and west-facing windows, bouncing off ash-oak laminate flooring and eggshell walls. Sheinbaum is the director of real estate development at Boulder Housing Partners (BHP), the City’s housing authority that owns and manages about 33% of the affordable housing stock in Boulder. 

“I think the only real difference that you might see in a brand new market rate rental is a solid surface countertop and maybe a tiled backsplash,” she adds.

At 870 square feet, the unit’s bedrooms are narrow, but forgivable when paired with a roomy bathroom, EnergyStar kitchen appliances, in-unit washer and dryer, ample closet space (“Kayak closets,” Sheinbaum says, plus an extra 5-by-8 storage room) and an amount of natural lighting rarely seen outside of the most meticulously crafted Instagram posts. Community rooms, rooftop decks and play areas also add space and opportunities for community. 

In short, it’s a beautiful apartment. But more than that, 30Pearl is in an ideal place for affordable housing, right in the middle of Boulder Junction, a pedestrian-oriented district with regional transit connections and public spaces. The three buildings that make up 30Pearl host a mix of affordable rental (120, with more to come later) and ownership units, plus the city’s first rent-capped retail space and first integrated housing for adults with developmental disabilities. There are units available for permanently supportive housing for formerly unhoused residents, and market rate units in nearby parcels still under development. 

John R. Ford Inside a unit at 30Pearl, an affordable housing development managed by Boulder Housing Partners.

After a scramble to pull the project together when the original developer pulled out in 2018, 30Pearl now stands as a testament to progressive affordable housing design — design that not only provides residents with an attractive, safe place to live, but also with a leg up, whether that’s the ability to save money to purchase a home, live in a high-performing school district or simply have stable housing. The mix of incomes in the neighborhood avoids the traditional practice of lumping affordable housing together, which often equates to isolating lower-income communities. The prime location offers easy access to transportation, with EcoPasses for all residents, grocery stores within walking distance and on-site job training for residents with developmental disabilities. 

Yet nothing on the outside or inside suggests these units are deeply affordable.

“The intent is for there not to be a distinction, necessarily, between affordable housing design and just good multi-family design,” Sheinbaum says. 

But what constitutes great affordable housing design has changed over the decades. Where hulking concrete structures — Cabrini-Green in Chicago, Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis — were once seen as economic answers to the affordability crisis, time has proven such designs do little in the way of elevating the lives of residents. There is mounting evidence that the buildings we live in play a significant role in our physical health, mental well-being, economic prosperity and community cohesion. 

And despite political and financial constraints, not to mention good old-fashioned NIMBYism, affordable housing developers in Boulder County (and in other areas of the country) have attempted to increase the positive impact of their housing projects through human-focused design: by mixing incomes within developments, incorporating programming on-site, implementing innovative building materials and systems, and cultivating a sense of community. 

Location, location, location

“Boulder is ostensibly an island,” Sheinbaum says as we stand on the north side of 30Pearl, the sounds of construction occasionally dominating our conversation. “We have a green space outerbelt, which is fantastic. We have a height restriction. We have such a beautiful location and all the open space is great, but it’s created an island — we’re landlocked. We don’t have the ability to expand up or out, so the price of land, the price of real estate in Boulder, has nowhere to go but up.”

Viewed in a certain light, the problem forces a positive outcome: mixing incomes within a single project, as is the case with 30Pearl. The development provides units for individuals and families between 30 and 60% of the area median income (AMI), as well as for formerly unhoused individuals and those with developmental disabilities. BHP has sold parcels of the adjacent property to private developers for market rate rentals, meaning 30Pearl is in an income-diverse neighborhood.

“The important thing, I think, is to provide every resident with opportunities and access to opportunities,” said Kathy Korgan, an architect who specializes in multi-family housing, during a panel on community-based design at the 2015 American Institute of Architects conference. “And there’s a lot of ways to achieve that. … Having said that, I think it’s really important not to have large areas of segregated incomes and segregated opportunities.”  

John R. Ford

From the developer’s standpoint, mixed-income projects offer some perks. They work best in areas with a healthy demand for market-rate units, and provide more options for land-crunched places like Boulder to incorporate much-needed affordable housing across a spectrum of incomes in one place. Mixed developments can also help housing agencies with the perennial issue of closing the gap on financing by allowing them to sell parcels of land or a percentage of units for market-rate development.

However, the benefit of mixed-income developments for residents is less obvious. In theory, mixed-income communities offer low-income residents a chance to move up the socioeconomic ladder and lead healthier lives. But research over the years suggests that benefits for residents may be somewhat softer and less quantifiable.

In a 2010 literature review for the Urban Institute, researchers found that benefits for low-income families living in “mixed-income developments and income-diverse areas include those related to place, such as improved housing quality, increased safety, and improved property management, and improved mental health from a reduction in stress.” 

But, “whether or not low-income families have benefited economically or educationally is contested,” the report continues. “Research has provided evidence that both bolsters and challenges claims that living in mixed-income developments and income-diverse neighborhoods will lead to increased family self-sufficiency and better educational outcomes for children.”

For BHP, Sheinbaum says there are “things that we incorporate into our design that do help with the potential for economic mobility, but I think that we would consider it just good design, not design intended for economic mobility.”

“Everyone has their own path,” she says. “We try not to impose on people that there is someplace they need to get to.”

Library of Congress Cabrini-Green in 1999

Much of the heated debate around mixed-income developments centers on the destruction of poorly maintained, socioeconomically isolated high-rise structures like Cabrini-Green in Chicago. While many residents of Cabrini-Green were relocated into new mixed-use developments in the area, many more were permanently displaced, a story captured in the documentary 70 Acres in Chicago: Cabrini Green. The demolition of Cabrini-Green and construction of mixed-income housing raised questions around gentrification and just how much people from vastly different income brackets will interact, even when put in close proximity to one another.

Which is not to say that mixed-income developments provide no benefits to residents. In a place like Boulder, where land is limited and opposition to development of any kind, let alone affordable housing, can be strong among neighboring residents and homeowners, mixed-income developments can soften the blow, so to speak, by including sleekly designed structures like 30Pearl adjacent to market-rate parcels that will attract higher-income residents. This setup can ensure stable affordable housing in a safe environment that naturally encourages good maintenance of the property.

“The importance of the income mix may be less about social interaction with higher-income households and more about relieving the ongoing safety and security concerns that impede lower-income residents’ economic progress,” writes Archana Pyati for Housing Matters (an initiative by the Urban Institute). 

Norrie Boyd, interim director for Boulder County Housing Authority (BCHA), emphasizes the importance of a continuum of housing within mixed developments, such as with Aspinwall at Josephine Commons in Lafayette. Aspinwall features affordable town homes and duplexes ranging in size from one bedroom to four bedrooms for individuals and families, while Josephine Commons, on the same parcel, offers affordable senior housing. The developments are connected by shared green spaces and a community center. 

“Having family units next to senior units allows for generational programming and activities, and it also allows some folks to have sort of a continuum of housing,” Boyd says. “[Residents] might start out living in a duplex with stairs and having a couple of levels and then want to move into something with an elevator that’s 100% ADA-accessible and have more common areas that are easy to access for seniors, indoors as well as outdoors.” 

Local Housing Solutions, a non-partisan website developed through the National Community of Practice on Local Housing Policy, lays out a number of ways that developers — whether they’re in Boulder or Chicago or elsewhere — can ensure successful mixed-income developments, including tenant composition and ratio of extremely low-income households to relatively higher income households; ensuring the creation of larger units for families with children who may have longer-term affordability needs; and, perhaps most importantly, offering support services to those who need them:

“…[H]aving higher-income neighbors does not necessarily lead to the formation of relationships across income groups that promote economic mobility for lower-income households,” the organization writes in a brief on developing mixed-income housing. “Rather than relying on newly-forged social connections to help advance the careers of assisted-housing residents, the community may wish to offer career guidance and training and other supports to help low-income residents get ahead.” 

Providing programming 

According to Carrie Makarewicz, an associate professor in the Department of Planning and Design in the College of Architecture and Planning at the University of Colorado Denver, there are three categories to focus on when discussing design of affordable housing: quality of location; how well it is designed for long-term accommodation of families of varying sizes; and whether it offers the kind of services residents need. 

Makarewicz has done studies on affordable housing in Oakland, Denver and Boulder. In 2017, She and her team conducted a “before-after affordable housing” study for two housing authorities (BHP and BCHA) on six sites, including Aspinwall at Josephine Commons and other sites such as Broadway East, a Section 8 Community in Boulder, which uses the Housing Plus model to provide services to residents. 

“[BHP] tries to use this Housing Plus model in some but not all of their developments, depending on the income range and what kind of funding they have,” Makarewicz says. “But with Housing Plus they try to include day care on site, computer labs that may be multi-purpose, adult education centers, resume help. Sometimes they’ll get tax providers located [on-site] during the tax season.”

John R. Ford

Components like holiday programming can act as a way to bring residents together and foster a sense of community, as well.  

“In my research in East Oakland … I talked to some women who said, ‘We had Native American celebrations and celebrations of Latin culture, and I loved learning about my neighbors’ culture,’” Makarewicz says. 

Sheinbaum says partnerships between housing authorities like BHP and other social service organizations allow each to focus on their strengths. 

“We’re not social service providers, we’re housers,” she says of BHP, “but we’ll partner with other organizations. .. So they’ll use the community center that we have invested in and built, but [the social service organization] gets prioritization services out of that facility. And that works great because it keeps us from having to staff it and they can do what they do best.”

At the Broadway East Community Center there’s after school programming in coordination with I Have A Dream Foundation, as well as computer labs and space for children to relax and have a snack after school, or get help with schoolwork. 

And while the Housing Plus model certainly isn’t exclusive to housing authorities like BHP, Sheinbaum says private developers of affordable housing can rarely make these kinds of necessary community organization connections. 

“There are other developers who do affordable housing in Boulder, and they do beautiful work, but this sort of provision of space for services, the connection to services, is a value add that BHP provides as opposed to what a private developer would do. Typically they’re not going to have that same investment in the resident piece.”

While not every affordable housing development in Boulder needs to include supportive services such as child care, tax preparation or job training, several of the newest additions to the county’s housing stock do just that. 

30Pearl’s integrated housing for adults with developmental disabilities (known as the Independent Living Community) includes job training at a still-in-development retail space that will be managed by Ramble On Pearl, a nonprofit social enterprise supporting adults with developmental disabilities. 

In Longmont, The Spoke on Coffman will likewise provide a range of services. When construction is complete around March 2022, the mixed-use neighborhood of affordable rental homes will consist of 73 one- to three-bedroom apartments. 

Located across the street from the St. Vrain Community Hub, residents of The Spoke will have easy, integrated access to a wide range of services and benefits, including health coverage, food, child care assistance, financial coaching, immunizations, employment supports, mental health services, family and children services, and a cafe space that will act as a workforce training center for those looking to build job skills. 

Materials matter

No discussion around the design of affordable housing would be complete without an examination of building materials and innovative systems for heating, cooling and sustainability. While these may seem removed from the human component of the developments, strategic use of innovative building techniques, like off-site construction and alternative materials, can lead to cost savings that developers can pass on to residents. 

“There’s been a lot of buzz about off-site construction, a term that refers to both modular housing units and flat-packed elements such as structural insulated panels,” write Hannah Hoyt and Jenny Schuetz in a 2020 series on affordable housing design for the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. “Off-site construction promises big benefits (higher-quality construction, reduced time lines and lower costs), yet it is not widely used for multifamily housing in the U.S., outside some of the costliest coastal markets.”

There are challenges, the authors write, to applying these techniques: the time it takes to adapt to a new building process can be daunting; the expense of moving off-site construction components can be more than it’s worth; knowing when modular construction is right — for small units rather than large apartments; and recognizing the staging and space needed to piece together modular construction can be nearly impossible in dense urban settings.

BCHA has used prefabricated materials on several of its most recent projects, including at Josephine Commons in Lafayette, Kestrel Housing in Louisville, and Tungsten Village, a 26-unit development for low- and moderate-income residents, in Nederland.  

 BCHA Senior Planner Justin Lightfield says that 30% of the building at Tungsten Village was prefabricated.

“That includes a lot of the walls that were built off site, as well as a lot of the wood floors,” he says. “That helped us, especially in that climate where we do lose quite a few months of construction time due to the weather up there.”

Tungsten Village is the Town of Nederland’s first low-income housing tax credit project. Using geothermal systems that use the constant temperature of the Earth to heat and cool units (instead of forced air), solar panels, high-efficiency windows and no natural gas, Boyd says BCHA has found “the formula for hitting really low utility costs and energy use.” Not all of these options work at every development, but experience has helped BCHA know what could work best where. 

But because County policy often differs from City policy where things like energy requirements are concerned, Sheinbaum says BHP hasn’t had quite as much luck with using geothermal systems or as high a percentage of modular components.   

“We priced out geothermal systems and haven’t been able to make it work financially,” she says. “In terms of prefab, there’s different levels of it. At [30Pearl] we did a lot of panelization — we found that to be really cost effective. But so far the delta is still higher for a fully modular build as opposed to doing sort of a hybrid.” 

The takeaway

There’s no panacea for creating human-focused, cost effective affordable housing design, particularly as federal, state and local policies create layers of complex funding and requirements to navigate. 

But in Hoyt and Schuetz’s interviews with developers, contractors and architects for Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, they found a smattering of factors that can help teams deliver better projects: reduced parking requirements; zoning that doesn’t prohibit efficiently sized projects (rules such as maximum building height or open space zoning in Boulder); and shorter, simpler, more transparent review processes. 

But much of this is out of the hands of developers like BCHA and BHP, and fully in the hands of local government officials… and area residents who influence them. 

“Single-family zoning is exclusive, and so in this town exclusivity leads to a lack of diversity,” Sheinbaum says. 

She sees her work as a benefit to the whole community, not just to those who need affordable housing. 

“When I retire, I want somebody to say something nice about me, something like, ‘She made Boulder a little more beautiful.” she says. “Not because it’s affordable, but just because the work that I’m doing is making things more beautiful in the city. I think the ultimate compliment is when affordable housing is beautiful on its own.”   

This is the second part of a series on affordable housing funded by a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network. 

If you currently live or have experience with Boulder County’s affordable housing programs, we want to hear from you. Please email editorial@boulderweekly.com, with “affordable housing” as the subject line.