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Designing Better Supportive Housing

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Designing Better Supportive Housing

Image of a multi-story brick residential building along a sloped street.The Landing Road Residence in the Bronx is the first project in New York City's HomeStretch program, which colocates transitional shelter and permanent affordable housing to move people from homelessness to housing stability. Photo credit: BRC

What role can the design of supportive housing play in ending homelessness? At the 2018 American Institute of Architects Conference on Architecture, held in New York City from June 21 to 23, one group of panelists sought to answer that question. Moderated by Darin Reynolds, partner at COOKFOX Architects in New York, the panel included Emily Lehman, assistant commissioner for special needs housing at the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, and Elissa Winzelberg, director of design and construction at Breaking Ground, also based in New York. Panelists shared examples of New York City-based projects that deploy design to enhance the supportive functions of housing and articulated the ways in which New York City’s housing policy encourages strategic design to effectively keep people housed and healthy.

Promoting Design-Conscious Policy

Lehman began the discussion with an overview of current efforts in New York City to expand affordable housing generally and supportive housing specifically. The city envisions adding 300,000 units of affordable housing by 2026 through its Housing New York 2.0 plan. In addition, the city has found that supportive housing “is a proven, cost-effective approach to addressing the needs of New Yorkers struggling with mental illness, homelessness, and substance abuse.” However, a significant gap persists between the city’s supply of supportive housing and demand; 60,000 homeless New Yorkers are living in shelters, and only one unit of supportive housing is available for every four approved applications. In response, over a 15-year period that began in 2015, the city plans to add 15,000 units of supportive housing through its NYC 15/15 Initiative.

Recognizing that well-designed housing can help achieve these and related social objectives, New York City has emphasized design in its housing policy. Using various policy tools, the city is aggregating and disseminating best design practices to developers of supportive housing. According to Lehman, these best practices include the Enterprise Green Communities Criteria, which promote the use of healthier and more sustainable building materials; guidelines that convey the design elements of Quality Affordable Housing; zoning changes to promote inclusionary and affordable housing, articulated in the Zoning for Quality and Affordability amendment of 2016; and the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s Design Guidelines for Supportive Housing. The supportive housing design guidelines are intended to ensure that buildings enhance neighborhood character, encourage better site planning, promote inviting spaces that allow for interaction, ensure livable and accessible units, and establish construction standards.

Supportive by Design

Breaking Ground has found that emphasizing high-quality design in its New York projects has usually garnered positive reactions from residents of both the housing projects and the surrounding communities, according to Winzelberg. Neighborhood opposition, which is a frequent obstacle to the development of affordable housing, has been a less significant challenge for Breaking Ground for several reasons. Breaking Ground projects place distinctive, visually appealing architecture on sites that often had been brownfields (the redevelopment of which is encouraged by a city-run grant program) or were otherwise derelict. As a result, community residents see these projects as community assets. In addition, the people who come to live in a new Breaking Ground building often have been living in the neighborhood for some time. Local residents moving into the newly finished buildings thereby preserve their close ties to the community, which in turn sees the supportive housing as an asset that directly benefits them. These positive reactions, says Winzelberg, are an on-the-ground confirmation of a 2008 study that found positive effects to real estate values for properties close to supportive housing developments. (PD&R Edge offers a more in-depth account of one Breaking Ground project, the Boston Road supportive housing development located in the Bronx.)

Supportive housing is an area of ongoing experimentation and innovation in New York, and various design strategies are available to achieve positive outcomes for residents. The Landing Road Residence in the Bronx, for example, is the first project in the HomeStretch program. Under this program, buildings colocate and cofinance transitional shelter and permanent affordable housing, emphasizing in a single structure a continuum of housing needs. At the Betances development, areas intended for low-income seniors utilize New York City’s Active Design Guidelines to help residents stay physically fit. Betances’ embrace of multigenerational housing also strengthens social ties, promoting an often-overlooked aspect of wellness, according to Reynolds. Other approaches have included using efficient and sustainable materials that reduce building operating costs or designing a double-height lobby, which can make the ground floor more welcoming and, in turn, encourage the use of the services there.

Design is emerging as an important and powerful method to increase the efficacy of supportive housing. Through innovative thinking, practitioners and policymakers in New York City are finding new ways of leveraging design to improve residents’ outcomes and keep vulnerable individuals and families stably housed. Across a range of housing-related issues, from the perspective of both the supportive housing residents and the community at large, design and design-conscious policy is generating positive results in New York. The experiences shared by the panelists offer insights for others using supportive housing to combat homelessness.


New York City Supportive Housing Task Force. 2016. “NYC 15/15 Initiative: 15,000 New Units of Supportive Housing over the next 15 years,” 3. Accessed 20 June 2018.

Published Date: 24 September 2018