When most people think of affordable housing, images of faceless, cheap and ugly-looking concrete blocks tend to come most readily to mind. That’s partly why advocates and developers working on affordable housing projects for the homeless find new developments a hard sell with neighborhood homeowners.
But good design can do more than win over the neighbors. Good design can also help the formerly homeless heal, and the socially isolated build community.
Take Archer Studios in North San Jose, a 42-unit development that rents studios for $250 to $830 a month, on a sliding scale. The structure stands in a neighborhood where comparable apartments rent for an average of $1,500.
John Sheehan of Studio E Architects likes to think he’s designed something that looks like “a boutique hotel — definitely not an affordable apartment project.”
Archer Studios makes a compelling case for prioritizing a strong aesthetic sensibility when it comes to building homes for members of the formerly homeless community.
Huge windows in the lobby make the space feel wide open to the neighborhood. The polished concrete floor is stained a dark, warm grey. “Super easy to maintain and the high polish reflects light deep into the project,” says Sheehan, who adds that his aim is not just to create an attractive space, but also one that builds a sense of community.
As such, the atrium off the second floor elevator doesn’t just look pretty. The Adirondack chairs and sycamore trees scattered about the space invite residents to hang out and mingle, as well as invite over family and friends.
“Good design really solves a lot of problems,” says Dan Wu, who heads Charities Housing, the non-profit developer that built and manages Archer Studios.
Chartered by Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County, Charities Housing runs a portfolio of properties throughout the South Bay to provide housing for people with disabilities, people on fixed incomes, and the formerly homeless. “Did we splurge on some of the landscape pots? Yeah!” says Wu. “But is it really kind of paying dividends for us? Absolutely.”
Wu says Archer Studios cost $15 million to build, a figure comparable to similar projects in the South Bay. For example, he says Parkside Studios in Sunnyvale, a 59-unit development completed in 2015, cost about $22.3 million. “The average cost per unit between the two projects was almost the same when you account for inflation,” Wu says.
Some design-forward projects in the region cost more than their bare-bones cousins, but Sheehan and Wu insist they have ways to keep the budget in check. “If we keep things really simple elsewhere, then there’s some budget to splurge in a few key spots,” Sheehan says.
Wu points to another key aspect of the design. In an earlier Charities Housing micro-unit project, residents had to make do with a communal kitchen. At Archer, each 285 square foot unit includes a full kitchen. Wu says his organization learned that’s key to feeling like you live in a real home, not an institution.
69 year-old Archer Studios resident Estella Sanchez adores her kitchen, because she loves to cook real food. “Not TV dinner food,” she says.
Sanchez has lived at Archer Studios for two and a half years. Before that, she was on a waiting list for affordable housing, because her former landlord was raising the rent. “It was up to $1,700. I had nowhere to go,” Sanchez says.
Not in this rental market. Not on social security. Sanchez was homeless for 90 days in San Jose, living in her Subaru Legacy. “It gets cold out there,” Sanchez says. “Nobody really wants to help you. Nobody wants to get involved.”
Does Sanchez notice design elements like the basalt fountain burbling over a bed of blue glass pebbles in Archer Studios’ atrium? She chuckles at the question. “I’m happy to have a warm, safe, clean place to live,” Sanchez says. “I’m just happy to be off the street.”
It’s hard to underestimate how important safety is to residents. 67 year-old Jerry Robb used to live in a sketchy stretch of South San Jose, just off Senter Road.
Safety is topmost in Robb’s mind. He loves that people have to punch in a code to get in the front door. “You haven’t got people prowling around your door at 2, 3 o’ clock in the morning,” he says.
Because of the building’s sleek look, Charities Housing didn’t have to fight to win over neighbors to the idea of Archer Studios. But the agency has dealt with a lot of push-back over the years from homeowners who don’t want affordable housing projects near them. “You know, go visit one and really see for yourselves,” Wu urges homeowners.
A few weeks ago, Charities Housing celebrated the grand opening of another project, The Met, in South San Jose. Supervisor Cindy Chavez was one of the local politicians backing the project, and she took to a podium to speak.
“Every time you build quality projects like this, that are well managed and stay beautiful, you help us create the public will to get people to be open to affordable housing,” Chavez said, and a ripple of laughter rolled through the crowd.