Photography by Lara Swimmer

From the issue feature, "Empathy Fire and Spades: Design for Social Innovation."
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Nyer Urness House

Nyer Urness House, a Housing First project in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood. Through the provision of shared spaces such as meeting rooms, lounges, a dining room, computer lab, a clinic and outdoor terraces, the architecture encourages impromptu and planned social interactions. 

It’s 3:00 a.m. on a January night as I walk Seattle’s Shilshole Marina. It is quiet. All I hear are distant foghorns and barking sea lions. I am seeking, and hoping not to find, people sleeping outside. I am one of hundreds of volunteers attempting to quantify the homelessness epidemic in Seattle and the Northwest. According to the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, this year’s One Night Count numbers are up from 2013: 3,123 people were found sleeping outside, a 14% increase in King County. 

Seattle’s polite society, when confronted with homelessness, will give their pocket change, buy a cup of coffee or a sandwich, write a check to a favorite charity and lament the homelessness epidemic. But what if homelessness could be eliminated through planning, compassion and thoughtful design? What would that be worth?

THE EVOLUTION OF HOMELESSNESS IN AMERICA

Homelessness reached a crisis level in the 1980s when the Federal Government de-invested in local communities by cutting budgets for housing and social services. In the 1990s, despite a healthier US economy and funding through the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (1987), widespread homelessness persisted. The 2000s saw a broadening of the homeless demographic to include more families, veterans, LGBTQ community members and the mentally ill. Frustrated by the shortcomings of stopgap measures such as overnight shelter and barriers to entry represented by clean and sober housing, providers needed a model that could offer a pathway out of homelessness for their clients. Enter Housing First.

THE EMERGENCE OF HOUSING FIRST

Housing First recognizes that the root causes of homelessness (mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence and trauma) can only properly be confronted once a person has stable, supportive housing. Its core principles include providing housing without pre-conditions of sobriety or treatment, wrap-around supportive services, harm-reduction approaches to addiction while supporting residents’ commitments to recovery, and legal tenant protections.

Because of early and ongoing successes, Housing First emerged as the gold standard for addressing chronic homelessness. New York City’s Pathways to Housing, widely credited with Housing First’s creation, has housed over 600 people with an 85% retention rate. The Chicago Housing for Health Partnership program was the subject of a four-year study that found that Housing First residents had 29% fewer hospitalizations and 24% fewer ER visits than individuals receiving standard care for homeless persons with chronic illnesses. Canada’s At Home / Chez Soi study evaluated Housing First against more traditional housing for homeless people and found that every $10 invested in Housing First services yielded an average savings of $9.60 for high-need participants. These programs demonstrate that housing a person in Housing First utilizes a fraction of the services the same person living on the streets would need. People in stable, supportive housing are less likely to require emergency services or incarceration, thereby lowering costs for taxpayers.

However, in order to be successful, Housing First requires long-term investments in residents and providers. Critics argue the commitment has such a long future trajectory that its sustainability cannot be assured, particularly when considering the unpredictability of public opinion. Coupled with constant pressure on providers to stretch scarce resources, the argument for Housing First can be a difficult one to make.

SO WHY BOTHER CREATING HOUSING FIRST BUILDINGS?

Some may consider it a fool’s errand to suggest greater resources be spent creating Housing First buildings. But it is not a giant leap in logic to grasp that spending more initially for high-quality, durable materials and systems pays long-term dividends through lower operations, maintenance and repair costs. It also allows providers to focus on stabilizing their tenants, rather than calling maintenance. If you could extend Housing First’s savings through high-quality design and construction, why wouldn’t you? Beyond the quantifiable benefits, thoughtful, rational and efficient design contributes to a person’s sense of well-being. People appreciate well-conceived, bright, peaceful spaces. These are the contributions the design community can make.

HOUSING FIRST IN SEATTLE: THE HOUSE THAT NYER BUILT

Nyer Urness House, an 80-unit Housing First building in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, is owned and operated by Compass Housing Alliance (CHA), a Seattle-based organization providing services and housing to people struggling with homelessness. Nyer Urness was CHA’s chaplain from 1989 to 2006 during which time he ministered to the homeless with care and humility. Retired CHA executive director Rick Friedhoff says about the reverend, “Nyer made people feel comfortable and valued regardless of their station in life. He created a place for grace.”

Nyer Urness House

Designed by Weinstein A+U, Nyer Urness House draws on single room occupancy and co-housing typologies, including efficient sleeping quarters with emphasis on communal living. The building’s cladding, heating and plumbing systems were selected for durability, lowest operational costs and minimal maintenance.

In creating Nyer Urness House, the design team was tasked with meeting the essential programmatic elements of a Housing First building, creating a durable, efficient building that would save money, and capturing the spirit of Nyer’s ministry. Only time will tell if the building meets its ambitious design goals, but after a year in operation, only 3 out of 80 inaugural residents have left.

In a recent CHA video, when asked about his home, one Nyer Urness House resident says:

“When I moved in here, I was so deep into alcohol, I’d just hide in my room for days, have seizures and think nothing of it. After living here a month I came to a point where I said, “I have to do something. This is sick.” Then after I quit drinking, I would hide in my room because I didn’t know how to handle myself . . . I would come in here and find solace, solitude. I wouldn’t be sober today, I don’t know if I would even be alive, the way I was drinking before I got in here. This is it—Home Sweet Home.”

After the funding applications are submitted, the budgets established, the design completed and the building built, people’s lives have a chance at getting better. So, what is it worth? It is worth the effort.