Thursday, October 31, 2013

Building Decent Affordable Homes For The Homeless

A Business Proposal

Residential Complex: This is a basic design of  a residential building; too many modern buildings
are built without considering that humans will inhabit the space, often lacking touches of beauty
that breathe necessary life into a complex. This reminds me of a quote of Frank Lloyd 
"All fine architectural values are human values, else not valuable."

Photo Source & Credit: Civil Basics

In a recent post, Homeless in NYC (October 26th), in which I cited a New Yorker article, I briefly raised the issue and the greater implications of homelessness and some of the societal reasons for its continuance, despite some efforts to rid society, or at least alleviate its effects, of this continuing and persistent problem. There have been many solutions tabled over the years, decades, to address these problems of displacement, and here is one that I am proposing—one that would bring together private enterprise, all levels of government, charitable organizations, private individuals and, of course, the homeless themselves.

Here's the clincher. The solution would cost much less than what governments now have to spend on "managing the homeless," for want of a better term. Now that I got your attention, here is the plan, the proposal. As is the case with all visionaries, my plan is not typical, so bear with me and consider it carefully before making a judgment on its merits.

Let's start with New York City; the article above said there were about 50,000 homeless individuals, including children, which translates to people who do not have permanent residences. Many are now living, temporarily, in shelters. But, remember, these are temporary and not permanent places of residence; and some, if not many, are barely fit for human habitation. The chief point worth noting is that the word shelter has a pejorative sense, suggesting transients and transition, which is not the same as having a stable place of residence.

What families need are residences, places which have a sense of permanence, a decent place to call home. Many of these families have adults who suffer from either mental-health problems or substance-abuse problems, which means that they need help from the community on a regular or continuing basis. This is nothing that they need be ashamed of, but something that is necessary for both their well-being and that of their children and other members of their family.

Now, governments of all levels say that they are cash-strapped and have no further money for social programs. Here is where businesses can play an important part in social responsibility, giving meaning to the catch-phrase "corporate social responsibility." Many multinational corporations who have billions of dollars in cash reserves and whom have benefited from America's market capitalism system can redeem themselves and gain a positive image by voluntarily agreeing to building decent and beautiful permanent residences for families who cannot currently afford permanent housing.

The idea is might be innovative but it has some merit; consider the recent article, by Laurie Monsebraaten, in The Toronto Star (“East Bayfront condo may incorporate affordable rental units purchased by City of Toronto”; Oct. 29, 2013), which says that Toronto is planning to buy 20% of the units in a $1.1-billion condo project and rent them out as affordable housing.

Monsebraaten writes:
In a ground-breaking pilot project being unveiled Tuesday, the City of Toronto is proposing to buy between 70 and 75 units in a condominium to be built as part of the recently announced $1.1 billion Bayside neighbourhood development. The units in the proposed building east of Sherbourne Common and George Brown College would be owned and operated by a non-profit housing company and offer affordable rental housing for low- and modest-income residents, according to a staff report to be debated by the city’s affordable housing committee.

“This is definitely a landmark,” said subcommittee chair Councillor Ana Bailao. “The fact that this affordable housing is being built so early in the development and the fact that it is going to be incorporated in the same building is remarkable. We haven’t done anything like this anywhere before,” she said.
This is true, but it might not be, given that the mayor has publicly spoken harshly against the proposal, saying that only the wealthy elites ought to have access to waterfront property—a sentiment shared by many Torontonians.

Affordable Housing For the Homeless 

Even so, all new ideas are always initially met with suspicion and hostility. The important thing is to table new ideas, and bring these into public view and debate. Thus, it’s possible to take it a step further and build affordable housing for the homeless, but using private investment. Thus, here are some of the basic requirements for each residential complex:
  • Each residential complex will have no more than 16 floors, contain twelve 2-bedroom (725 sq. ft.) and four 3-bedroom apartments (1,000 sq, ft.) equipped for families—with no more than 16 units per floor. This equates to 256 units per residential complex, or about housing for asbout 1,000 individuals 
  • Each complex will be about 200,000 sq. ft. 
  • Each complex will contain 200 spots for staff and visitor parking.
  • At a maximum total of 200,000 sq, ft, and at $212 a square foot, and using a factor of 20% for unexpected expenses, the maximum building cost comes in at about $50 million. Land acquisition is not included, and might run into the millions in some cases.
  • Each complex will contain sufficient green space, including a large garden with flowers, hedges and trees. Beauty is important for everyone.
  • On the two bottom floors of the complex there will contain 1) a medical centre staffed by physicians, nurses, dietitians and physiotherapists; 2) a community centre with swimming pool and fitness centre; 3) a mental-health and well-being centre staffed by psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers; and 4) Commercial spaces dedicated to a pharmacy, a grocery store and a beauty salon.
  • Rent would be no more than 30% of earned income; since the “homeless” would now have a place of residence, they would be eligible for some form of social or government assistance, thus allowing them to pay the rent.
  • The centres will be open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and will always be adequately staffed. 
  • Salaries for healthcare professionals (per complex): one physician, 2 nurses, one physiotherapist, one psychologist, 2 social workers. $2-4 million per year.
  • Other ancillary salaries typical of residential complexes (cleaning, maintenance, landscaping, recreational, security, etc): $1-2 million.  
  • Estimated annual operating costs: $3-6 million; most of it would be recovered from both residential and commercial rents.
New York City would require approx. 50 such residential complexes, that is, based on current numbers. So, the total bill for construction for NYC would be about $2.5 billion (plus additional costs for land acquisition), and the total annual operating cost not to exceed $60 million; it would be a non-profit venture. Economies of scale and societal goodwill might reduce the cost of construction.

If proven socially and economically feasible, this concept can be scaled for other cities, including my own, Toronto. Bear in mind that this is an initial proposal from a non-professional, with no experience and little knowledge in this area. My chief knowledge lies in the sentiment that something new, different, ought to be considered. Thus, I welcome all comments, notably from builders and developers, on this proposal, notably on any errors I have made in costs.

As for the socio-economic considerations, I have not addressed these in this post for the reason that my views on such matters can be found in my many blog posts, including Compassionate Capitalism, Justice's Virtue and Time For Another New Deal. Moreover, I am aware of the deep divisions in our society, which come about from some fears, namely, a class of persons should receive decent accommodations without "having earned it or worked for it." That if you don't work hard for its purchase it holds less value. There is much validity in this statement, but it can be stretched too thin.

The chief question that needs addressing is the kind of society we want to live in, and whether social cohesion or harmony is important. Concomitant to this is whether there is room in our society for those individuals and families who have not "made it," to use a colloquial term with such loaded meaning. After all, society has a few individuals within its midst—often highly esteemed—who do not have to work too hard to have a nice roof over their head and good food on the table, and yet they hold both people and property in contempt. In this regard, I am reminded of a oft-quoted passage in Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby (1925):
They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness  or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.… (180-81)