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Issue 1: Community Revitalization

Friends House

by Jim Morgan, R.A.

Is community revitalization only about reusing abandoned buildings? Even to an architect, the answer has to be no. Helping those in the community seeking to rebuild their lives matters even more.

That, at least, was the premise for Friends House in Rosehill. Located in a substantial 1915 fireproofed-steel-and-masonry loft building on Lexington Avenue, four blocks north of Manhattan’s exclusive Gramercy Park, it is today an elegant residence for 50 formerly homeless people living with AIDS. For the decade of 1986?1996, however, dark, empty and graffiti-covered, this structure served only to intensify neighborhood blight.

Homelessness and AIDS (Acquired Immune-Deficiency Syndrome) swept through New York City during the 1980’s like Horsemen of the Apocalypse, often side-by-side with TB (tuberculosis). Among those made homeless by a systemic loss of affordable housing in that era (a population who often shared drug injection needles) HIV and AIDS grew rapidly. TB also returned with a vengeance as those same people were jammed into inadequate shelters reluctantly provided by an unsympathetic municipal government.

It was in response to this epidemic of communal neglect that, in 1988, the New York Quarterly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) decided to act. Having already been providing services to homeless people for over a decade, a committee of social activists among this small band (less than six hundred members) labored together for two years before reaching clarity: they asked the Quarterly Meeting to commit itself to housing homeless people with AIDS.

With that support granted in 1991, and soon legally constituted as Friends Quarters Housing Development Fund Corporation (FQHDFC), the committee began to search for an appropriate vacant structure in lower Manhattan. Two and a half years of frustration followed, during which time, four different properties were studied but then denied to FQHDFC for various reasons including vehement local opposition. Then, almost desperate, the project manager, Carol Jackson, approached the bank holding a defaulted mortgage on the long-empty Lexington Avenue building. She found them willing to consider far less than its advertised price of $6 million in order to shrink their bulging portfolio of repossessed commercial real estate.

With that assurance, Friends Quarters approached the relevant community board for its approval, and applied to New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) for a HOPWA grant (Housing Opportunities for People With AIDS, a title in the 1990 federal housing act) with which to buy and renovate the building. Accomplishing all of that, and then actually getting the bank to accept their auction-winning bid of $1.2 million taught these Quakers some memorable lessons about life in the NYC real estate marketplace. Truly, had FQHDFC not been operating from a base of religious conviction, this project might well have died during this period. On March 15, 1994, however, using a $5.1 million HOPWA grant, FQHDFC took title to the property. Then the corporation syndicated its tax credits, another federal program to channel money into low-income housing, through the New York Equity Fund and raised an additional $1.2 million, most of which was spent to maximize design quality, including a state-of-the-art gas-fired HVAC system.

Cindy Harden and Jan Van Arnam, Brooklyn architects specializing in low-income supportive housing, who had patiently prepared preliminary studies for this and all of the previous sites examined, now got down to work on the contract documents. By June, 1995, a construction contract had been awarded to Phoenix Builders, Inc., a general contracting firm operated by architect Howard Chin who, with his associates Nancy Chan and Kwok Kei Chan, was also thoroughly experienced in building NYC low-income housing. Thus began a remarkably benign, mutually supportive collaboration between client, architect, contractor and HPD’s contract administrator, Joe Longo. The beauty of the resulting product, essentially completed by November 1996, speaks for the manner in which all of these professionals worked together.

As the opening paragraph makes clear, however, that’s just the beginning of this community revitalization story. For months before the building was ready, FQHDFC battled with the NYC Department of AIDS Services for an operating contract (also primarily funded through HOPWA) large enough to provide future residents with decent services. Unfortunately, during the winter of 1996-97, the building stood unoccupied because of bureaucratic obstacles.

In the meantime, the Friends Quarters board found and hired Jill Clockadale as its executive director; she used this period to develop an exceptionally competent management team, which was well prepared to operate the facility, when the first residents moved into their studio apartments in April, 1997. The staff of almost twenty social service and building operations employees has, since then, provided residents with effective support. Daily life at Friends House is more calm and restorative than anyone would have imagined possible.

The most startling, yet deeply satisfying, news for those who planned this residence is that few who live there are dying. Formerly faced with the prospect of a short, brutal denouement once diagnosed with AIDS most Friends House residents, thanks to sophisticated drug therapies, are living relatively normal lives. Their fear of unpredictable health episodes and inexorable physical debilitation is significantly reduced. Now residents sitting around the dinner table wrestle with the question of whether or not they should go back to work. In fact, through the efforts of individuals living there, a computer-training laboratory has been equipped and classes organized for residents in basic computing skills.

It cannot be denied, however, that it is a challenge to provide permanent housing to those accustomed to the vicissitudes of life with AIDS . Substance abuse is a complex and persistent issue. Even though the majority of residents live clean and sober lives, there are always individuals who cannot resist the temptation that a secure and private apartment offers for “self-medication,” as it’s called.

Faced with angry demands from neighbors for mandatory drug testing during community board approval hearings in 1993, FQHDFC refused to agree. Instead a policy was established that protects resident privacy but provides for intervention whenever ant-social behavior occurs. This is done both by the individual’s case worker and by the Residents’ Council, a vigorous self-governance committee formed soon after the building opened. It has proved to be an effective force for civility and cooperation.

With two years of successful operation behind it, Friends House looks forward to strengthening its internal sense of community and to building increasingly productive connections with its now enthusiastic neighbors.

Jim Morgan was president of FQHDFC from 1993 to 1997. A registered architect, he was a founding member of Architects, Designers, Planners for Social Responsibility ( ADPSR) New York, and currently serves on the National ADPSR Board. He is also a founding member of ARCPeace, an international organization of architects concerned with socially responsible design and contemporary peace issues.

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