Is The Right To Housing Real?

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By Curry Stone Design Prize / Published by Curry Stone Design Prize
Nowhere do questions of the built environment reveal themselves more than when dealing with the fundamental issue of housing.

 The notion of ‘house’ or ‘home’ is more ancient than language, and for every typology mankind has ever produced, all human beings evince similar feelings about home: it is a place of safety, security, and identity. A building or structure becomes a ‘home’ when it becomes ours, either through legal machinations, payment, or the act of nesting.

Reformers in the early twentieth century adopted the idea that housing might be something of a right, but their social concern was tinged with a measure of condescension. Twentieth century altruism cemented the belief that if one was poor or disenfranchised, they were entitled to something, but only the portion of something necessary to keep them alive and alleviate our own guilt.

This conflicted ethos came to dominate our collective approach to social housing the in the postwar era: everyone has a right to housing, but in the barest sense. The rise of Modernism gave these social reformers a building typology which fit at both ends of the conflict. The Modernist aesthetic, when done well, was uplifting, serene and healthy. When done poorly, it was cheap and easy to build.

Many of our cities continue to deal with the legacy of these ambitions. In every major city, aging public housing projects suffer neglect and stigmatization, and increasingly the wrecking ball.

A new breed of social housing designers has emerged over the last few decades which overturns the postwar practice. Rather than trying to figure out how to make poor housing for poor people, they seek to make good housing affordable.

In contemplating its awards for 2017, the Curry Stone Design Prize began by confronting what we saw as the most intractable questions of the built environment. After decades of social agency by the global design community, what were the contradictions which remained unresolved? Housing, and our attitudes towards it, leapt out at all of us. If we can all agree that housing is a right, and that everyone should have a decent place to live, why does it seem that our urban policies and our design strategies seem so tilted against this basic belief? Why, in 2017, are there twenty vacant residential properties in New York City for every homeless family? Why is it getting harder and harder to find a place to live? Not just for the indigent, but even for the middle class?

To answer these questions, we assembled a progressive group of designers from our Social Design Circle who are leading the contemporary social housing movement. In our work, and our podcast Social Design Insights, we charged them with answering the question: Is the Right to Housing Real?

For over twenty years, the work of David Baker Architects (DBA) has made the right to good housing a part of their central design philosophy. DBA has emerged as a national leader in a new way of doing housing – a way which doesn’t begin with a false, binary choice between good housing and affordable housing.

Similarly, Breaking Ground has grown from humble beginnings into the largest provider of supportive housing in the United States. Their philosophy is simple: a home is more than just four walls and a roof. In order to break people out of the cycle of homelessness, you have to provide them with the supportive framework that makes bricks, concrete and steel into a home. For much of Breaking Ground’s clientele, this means job training, drug & alcohol counseling, child services, and other means of support which a true community typically provides.

The Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR) and the Community Architects Network (CAN) have engaged the near-intractable problems of Asian mega-cities, where inner-city residents are often forced to the periphery of a city in favor of new development which they can’t afford. ACHR and CAN run the gamut from capital projects to advocating for a more humane housing policy – one which doesn’t displace people for capital.

All three practices begin their work with a recognition of what housing actually is: the sum of all of the things which make our lives fulfilled. It is a source of financial security. It is a symbol of personality. The way we design a house and the spaces within it becomes a reflection of who we are. At a social level, housing become a means by which we enshrine culture, a means to cultivate community, and is the first line of defense in our healthcare system.

A home cannot just be four walls and a roof. Nor is it sufficient to provide basic amenities like running water and light. A home for someone else must provide all the things we seek in our own homes: an identity, a feeling of security, a sense of pride. If we believe that our fellow human beings are entitled to such things, then our designs must reflect that core belief.

'Design' as we think of it is often just the series of choices we make after our basic needs are fulfilled. It is an array of tools we use to define our own space, and our own identity. However, it remains the most effective means we have for addressing the basic needs of others, as well. These honorees of our Social Design Circle aptly demonstrate that we need not make a binary choice where housing is concerned. And we don’t have to force a Hobson’s choice upon the poor. Everyone can have good housing, and everyone should.