Why Architects Should be Advocates for the Homeless

What follows is an excerpt from a letter that I wrote to AIA Seattle’s Public Policy Board (PPB) back in March as part of a process (that is still ongoing) to develop a stronger “policy statement” related to the homelessness crisis in our region.

Whereas the policy statement itself is primarily concerned with the what — what policies can alleviate the challenges facing those who are living without shelter? — the letter was intended to address the why — why is homelessness an issue that architects specifically should be concerned with?

In the interest of keeping this succinct and accessible to a broader audience, I’ve removed much of the letter’s introduction which was related to ongoing dialogue between the PPB and the Committee on Homelessness (COHO). The part I’ve chosen to include below still heavily references AIA documents and statements, but I hope it will be of interest to all architects, regardless of their affiliation with the AIA.

It goes without saying that Seattle is in the midst of a housing and homelessness crisis. Despite being the 18th largest city in the country, we have the third largest homeless population.¹ On January 25, 2019, over 11,000 people were experiencing homelessness.²

The Committee on Homelessness is committed to doing whatever we can to make this situation better. Advocacy is one way that we intend to do that, and the policy statement that we have developed represents what we believe to be the most effective path forward.

Our members have talked at length about what it means to implement the principles that the AIA Seattle supports. If we believe the principle that housing is a human right then we must ask ourselves what actions should be taken to uphold that right and what efforts should be undergone to protect those whose rights are systematically violated year after year within our city and by agents of our local government.³ ⁴ If we believe in the principle of housing first then we must ask ourselves what actions best help vulnerable populations to move into housing and remain in that housing long term.

AIA Seattle is organized around four visions: serving society, serving the profession, serving our members, and serving the organization.⁵ For COHO to effectively address the issue of homelessness, we have to go beyond high level endorsements of principles which primarily serve the profession and take real, meaningful action that serves society at large. Our members are primarily practicing architects who join the committee because they see the problems of homelessness and want to improve their communities in new and creative ways.

In light of our committee’s numerous discussions, I’ve chosen to elaborate below on a few of the actions that we believe directly follow from principles that the AIA has supported and, importantly, fall within the purview of the architect advocate.

Prevention: Rental Assistance, Rent Control, Eviction Reform, Diversion Programs

AIA supports “the housing first approach in which people experiencing homelessness are offered permanent housing with few to no treatment preconditions, behavioral contingencies or barriers.”⁶ A real world implementation of this principle must consider prevention — ie, keeping people in permanent housing before they even become homeless — to be the quickest and most effective way to prioritize housing for those at high risk of homelessness.

Helping someone find housing immediately after they become homeless and helping someone stay in their housing immediately before they might become homeless must be seen as two sides of the same coin. How can we support one but not the other?

Effective policies are ones that measure success not just by the number of people who exit homelessness and enter housing, but also by the number who remain in that housing. Effective advocacy must similarly take a holistic approach to housing by promoting those policies that make housing viable long term for economically vulnerable populations.

Consequently, supporting a proper implementation of “housing first” should also include advocating for policies such as rental assistance (which is currently offered by non profit organizations such as Catholic Community Services but could be supplemented or incentivized by state and local government); rent control (which already exists in Washington State but is not robust enough to protect low income tenants); and eviction reform (which is currently being advanced in the state legislature through HB 1453, HB 1656, and SB 5600).

That architects should support these programs should not be a controversial notion. Architects are not real estate developers solely concerned with the economic production of housing. When it comes to shelter, to space, to living, we are critical thinkers concerned with the psychological and philosophical implications of the work that we do and the spaces we inhabit. Just as architects are interested in concepts like “the poetics of space,” so too should we be concerned with an idea like “ontological security” which suggests that a person’s mental states and well being are derived from a sense of continuity of their life events and environment. If an architect is rightfully preoccupied with such abstract notions of “dwelling” then supporting policy related directly to ensuring housing security should be a moral imperative.

Public Sanitation

Public restrooms and waste infrastructure are an important part of the built environment. That we’ve mostly chosen not to provide these services throughout our city’s public realm does not mean that the design problem doesn’t exist. We’ve largely just ignored it.

According to a recent City Auditor’s report,⁷ the City of Seattle does not come close to meeting standards set by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) of one toilet per twenty people. The report reveals that there are only six city-funded 24/7 toilets in Seattle despite a “street” population of more than 4,000. As architects tasked with ensuring that the built environment protects the health and welfare of the public, we must acknowledge this as a failure of our urban design policies.

Public sanitation is an issue that architects and the AIA, with the mission of “creating and sustaining a better built environment,”⁸ can and should take a position on. Many European cities incorporate restrooms into their urban fabric, and a number of American cities do the same. Portland Parks and Recreation has begun to install “Portland Loo” restrooms in city parks,⁹ while San Francisco has opened 25 mobile hygiene stations in neighborhoods with high rates of homelessness.¹⁰

Advocating for the provision of public hygiene and sanitation resources not only enhances the built environment and improves the quality of life of our city’s most vulnerable residents, it also addresses one of the most visible and contentious manifestations of the homelessness crisis. Public sanitation, or lack thereof, is often used to justify “sweeps” and other anti-homeless initiatives. Addressing this issue head-on can increase public support for more compassionate policies around homelessness.

Human Rights and Decriminalization of Homelessness

If “shelter is a basic human right at the heart of our profession”¹¹ what position do we take when that right is violated? And not just violated in the sense that the quantity of affordable housing is woefully inadequate but, even worse, violated in the sense that people who have nowhere else to go are forcibly displaced by “sweeps,” and, in some cases, their possessions are discarded.³ ⁴

A recent federal appeals court ruling in the case of Martin v Boise found it unconstitutional for law enforcement to evict someone living on publicly owned land without providing a practical alternative like a shelter bed,¹² and in Seattle the quantity of shelter beds is simply insufficient to house the thousands of people who are living outside.¹³

The state legislature is currently considering a bill to establish a homeless “bill of rights” that is directly based off of the Martin v Boise case law, and AIA should support it. When society is unable to provide sufficient resources to help individuals experiencing homelessness to enter permanent housing, we should not in turn criminalize those who are victims of the failure of our social safety nets.

As champions of a resilient, equitable, and livable public realm, architects should defend the rights of those who have no choice but live there.

Shelters and Encampments

We must not focus single-mindedly on housing, on one-bedroom apartments, studios, micro apartments, and the like. There is an entire spectrum of shelter and transitional housing that exists and is vital to helping people move from homelessness into permanent living situations. Architects must advocate for the dignity of these modes of living, and support their provision for individuals and families that wish to utilize them.

As architects, we can take a hard look at the land use code and argue whether, for example, the City’s standards around small efficiency dwelling units make micro-housing less affordable¹⁴— but, we must also advocate for other forms of homeless services that provide modest shelter in a practical and cost-effective manner. This means advocating for more resources, for more dollars, and not just for changes to the codes.

The issue of alternative forms of living is directly related to the profession of architecture, and many Architecture firms in Seattle design homeless shelters. Last year our committee toured the Lazarus Center in Rainier Valley which was designed by SMR Architects. Other firms that are represented among members of our committee (including Environmental Works and GGLO) have designed shelters and other forms of non-traditional supportive housing. The AIA can and should support this kind of work through advocacy.

Conclusion

Architects comment on policy related to land use, but we’re not planners or policy analysts or urban designers or economists. We comment on policy related to climate change despite not being climate scientists or climate researchers or economists or tax policy experts. And we should comment on policies related to, for example, eviction and rent control even though we are not landlords or developers or case workers or judges.

Being the single-most qualified expert on a topic shouldn’t be the sole criteria for supporting policy. Architects are generalists and we need not define our interests or our proficiency so narrowly, especially when our perspectives are needed and valued.

Perhaps a better criteria for supporting policy is relevance to our core mission and values. My fellow committee members and I believe that our policy statement squares with the AIA’s stated principles, and that more dialogue is needed with regard to the organization’s advocacy positions on homelessness.

I’d like to thank members of the Committee on Homelessness who provided their feedback, input, and support.

[1]: Homelessness Statistics by US City. https://www.statista.com/chart/6949/the-us-cities-with-the-most-homeless-people/

[2]: Seattle/King County Continuum of Care. 2019 Point in Time Count. http://allhomekc.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/All-Homes-Infographic-V04.pdf

[3]: For local context on what the criminalization of living without shelter looks like, see South Seattle Emerald, “Our Response to Homelessness is Violating Human Rights but We Can Close the Gap.” https://southseattleemerald.com/2018/04/13/our-response-to-homelessness-is-violating-human-rights-but-we-can-close-the-gap/

[4]: National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, “Violations of the Human Rights of Persons Experiencing Homelessness in the United States.” 2017. Specifically point eight. https://nlchp.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/sr-ep-2017.pdf

[5]: AIA Seattle 2018–19 Committee Chair Toolkit.

[6]: AIA Seattle’s Issue Brief on Homelessness. 2017. https://aiaseattle.org/wp-content/uploads/AIA-Seattle-Issue-Brief-Homelessness-1.pdf

[7]: Review of Navigation Team 2018 Quarter 2 Report. February 7, 2019. Specifically section 2.2. https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/5731981/Navigation-Team-Audit-2-7-2019.pdf

[8]: AIA Seattle’s Mission. https://www.aiaseattle.org/about/

[9]: City of Portland Parks and Recreation. https://www.portlandoregon.gov/parks/59293

[10]: City of San Francisco Department of Public Works. https://sfpublicworks.wixsite.com/pitstop

[11]: AIA Seattle’s Issue Brief on Homelessness. 2017. https://aiaseattle.org/wp-content/uploads/AIA-Seattle-Issue-Brief-Homelessness-1.pdf

[12]: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Ruling on Martin v Boise. http://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2018/09/04/15-35845.pdf

[13]: Review of Navigation Team 2018 Quarter 1 Report, pages 8–12. https://www.scribd.com/document/390038764/Review-of-Navigation-Team-2018-Quarter-1-Report

[14]: Sightline Institute. “How Seattle Killed Micro Housing” https://www.sightline.org/2016/09/06/how-seattle-killed-micro-housing/

Architect and advocate for affordable housing, density, and for those living unsheltered.