Aesthetic beauty isn’t usually a top priority when it comes to designing affordable housing, but in the case of Bud Clark Commons it was a central tenet. A $47 million supportive housing project designed by Holst Architecture and set near Portland’s burgeoning Pearl District, Bud Clark Commons goes above and beyond the baseline for public projects. It incorporates a design sensibility usually reserved for luxury lofts (think natural materials, high ceilings, and ample daylighting), enough green features to nab a LEED Platinum rating, and enough detailing to garner a 2011 Honor Award from the local American Institute of Architects chapter and a 2012 AIA Secretary's HUD award for Creating Community Connection.
"We wanted to break down the institutional look and veer away from treating this as just another place to warehouse people," says Jeffrey Stuhr, principal at Holst Architecture.
Such thoughtful attention to design reflects Portland’s dedication to help its neediest individuals. "When people step foot inside Bud Clark Commons, they feel valued, they feel affirmed. Part of what we’re trying to do is give people a sense that this community really cares about them and their progress," says Commissioner Nick Fish, who heads Portland’s housing and parks departments. "It’s no Taj Mahal, but it is scaled to the neighborhood, it’s warm and inviting, and in addition to being functional, it’s beautiful."
The project is named after former mayor Bud Clark, who adopted homelessness as a major agenda during his 1985–1992 tenure. In 2004, the city built upon that dedication with its ten-year plan to eradicate homelessness. Since then, Portland has moved 7,000 people from the streets or emergency shelters into permanent, stable housing. The Commons is one component of the plan and includes 130 affordable studio apartments; a 90-bed shelter; a day center with showers, laundry, and lockers; health services including counseling and addiction and mental health support; and a learning center for job and housing services.
This is a prime example of the Housing First policy model, which originated in New York in the early 1990s and has since been implemented in a handful of other cities across the country. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development adopted it in its federal strategic plan to end homelessness. The model argues that providing services and housing to the chronically homeless saves money in the long run, since "high barrier" individuals—those afflicted by drug and alcohol addiction or mental health issues—consume the most expensive city services, like emergency room visits and police and fire department attention. Though Portland has yet to conduct a formal study on exactly how much it has saved, a 2009 study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that Seattle’s Housing First services cut its per-person homeless expenditures by 53 percent, or about $2,500 a month.
Costs are only half of the equation: Housing First policies are also more effective. In the first six months since the Commons opened, 4,300 people have been served, 290 have moved on to permanent housing, and organizers estimate a 21 percent higher rate of placement in permanent housing as compared to the Glisan Street Shelter, which the Commons was intended to replace.
Fish acknowledges, however, that homelessness can’t be solved in just a decade, nor by one progressive project—though he hopes that Bud Clark Commons becomes the standard for other cities facing similar issues. "Many of the factors that cause homelessness today—unemployment, breakdown of our mental health system, foreclosures—are national problems," he says. "We as a city have a limited role in changing those dynamics, but we can still be bold and have a vision for ending homelessness. Ultimately, the goal is to end homelessness in America—and we have a long way to go—but here in Portland, we’re making progress."