Good, Thoughtful Hosts #105: Affordable Housing with Randy Rhoads

Much of Randy Rhoads’s 30-year career has been a reaction to cold, concrete public housing high rises. According to Rhoads, an architect and the Executive Director of Affordable Housing for Cushing Terrell, the affordable housing of yesteryear cut residents off from their communities, often making the most important resources inaccessible.

As the field has worked to correct course, the resulting homes have made major strides in a number of areas — including the health of residents. Now, these affordable housing developments consider what it means to design for inclusivity, personal wellbeing, and the entire community’s physical and mental health. Something as simple as a front porch can connect a resident with their neighbors, the natural environment, and an opportunity to pause.

Interested in reading more? A few additional links from Randy:

About Our Guest
Randy Rhoads has more than three decades of experience in the design of residential, commercial/retail, educational, and governmental/institutional projects. Over the course of his career, Randy has been the lead architect for more than 32 tax credit developments, overseeing the design and construction of over $1 billion in development costs; and has been responsible for leading the design of over 6,000 mixed-income, multi-family, and elderly apartment units in 14 cities across the United States. He is a member of the Congress for the New Urbanism and holds a Bachelor of Architecture degree from Kansas State University.

Episode #105 Transcript | Listen on SoundCloud

Sarah Steimer 00:00
The U.S. has a long and fraught history with affordable housing. We’ve historically cut off the poorest residents from the services, culture and jobs that they have every right to access. And we thought of their housing as little more than basic shelter. I’m Sarah Steimer. And on this episode of Good, thoughtful hosts, we’re talking about the role that architects and designers play in bringing affordable housing into the future. It’s not about finding the cheapest solution to house those with the lowest incomes. It’s about the opportunities you can create the lives you can improve when you better connect these residents with the rest of their community. So how is affordable housing defined? What past mistakes are we trying to correct? And how can architecture help residents of these properties lead healthier lives in both physical and mental capacity?

Randy Rhoads 01:17
Today’s special guest: I’m Randy Rhoads. I’m an architect and the executive director of affordable housing for Cushing Terrell.

Sarah Steimer 01:28
Okay, so just to get started, could you tell me a little bit more about your experience in the field of affordable housing, Randy.

Randy Rhoads 01:36
So I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been working with affordable housing, all across the country since the mid-90s. And during that time, I’ve had the great opportunity to work in 14 different cities, I’ve been responsible for the design of over 6,000 apartment units, and those are translated into about a billion dollars worth of development. So I’ve been able to go into cities all across the country and work on really troubled, difficult neighborhoods, mostly older, very old public housing sites, and turn those into mixed-income neighborhoods that are reconnected to the city, that are vibrant, that are healthy, that are sustainable, and that create a beautiful neighborhood for a mixture of incomes. So that’s been the core of what I’ve been doing for the better part of 30 years.

Sarah Steimer 02:27
Sure, so a little bit of experience here. So you know, I think a lot of people look at the role of architecture in affordable housing as sort of just a very basic roof over residents’ heads. But how can architecture kind of help connect residents with other community-supported programs, you know, you talked about that connection, just now when you know, bringing the city together, bringing the community together. So talk a little bit more about that.

Randy Rhoads 02:55
The starting point in any of the large-scale, transformative neighborhood projects that I’ve worked on is, it starts with the community, it starts with the people, it starts with the climate, the culture, and having strong political leadership in that community that understands that housing is the bedrock of our society. And so creating connections, those physical connections I talked about with streets that allow vehicles and bikes and people to circulate through and to these locations is a really critical starting point, because most of these neighborhoods have had a pretty high level of disconnection and segregation and not being part of the good things that are going on in community. So starting with the people in mind, finding out what’s important to residents, what’s important to the neighbors, the other stakeholders, what works in those communities, what doesn’t work, what has to be changed, what has to be preserved, and understanding all those things from being on the ground. That’s the key to starting a good urban design approach. So once the urban design approach is understood, and through collaboration with the community starts to develop, then architecture has an opportunity to start to respond to that culture and the climate, and the way people live and the way people want to live and how much community, connection, opportunity can be created by park spaces and front stoops and porches and patio spaces and all the kinds of things that allow people to connect and give them the opportunity to connect and then from the high-quality architecture. It gets to high-quality property management and maintenance. And then the fourth element would be providing an opportunity for community-supported services where folks that would benefit from some additional connection to either job training or health care issues or daycare or whatever it might be that the affordable housing could be a platform to get those kinds of connections in place for folks that just might not know how to access those kinds of services.

Sarah Steimer 05:11
I kind of want to level set for a moment because you know, you have been in this field for 30 years. And I think there is this assumption automatically when we think of affordable housing of thinking of these big concrete high rises a lot of times, and I just want to get an idea from you, sort of, in your experience, how thinking about the architecture of affordable housing has sort of changed over that time? Where do we come from? Where did we start? And where are we now?

Randy Rhoads 05:43
The concrete highrise. My work over the last 30 years has been an absolute reaction to that. And I’ll just give you tell you a story that’s just an example of that. In St. Louis, Missouri, the very first affordable housing mixed-income community that I worked on, this was in the mid-90s, that’s now called Murphy Park, but at the time, it was called a bond demonstration program. And it was a demonstration program for a new at that time, a new concept that HUD was developing, it was called Hope VI. And that Hope VI approach was a method to go into existing public housing, neighborhoods and create a mixed-income rental neighborhood. So this project that we worked on was showing that this could work. And so those buildings that were there were just what you were describing, 11 -story, 15-story concrete and brick high rises. And the streets, the existing streets had all been stopped around the edges and no streets came through. And so there was no relationship between the buildings, to the streets, or to the culture, to the climate, or to the neighborhood in any way, the traditional fabric that was there. So the separation, segregation, disconnection that the residents in those buildings experienced — the poor maintenance, elevators wouldn’t work. All the kinds of disconnection, kind of that I think a lot of people that have experienced or seen pictures of or seen movies about public housing in places like Chicago and New York, this was the same kind of setting in North St. Louis. So all those towers got torn down, the old traditional street grid, we reestablished that, which allowed us to reconnect to existing sewers and other utilities, and then build some new sewers and other utilities, create new park spaces, and build two- and three-story townhouses and apartment-style buildings that reflected the culture, reflected the materials, the architectural materials and details that were traditionally prevalent in that neighborhood. So in architecture, recall that the context — so these were contextual responses so that in the end, these buildings, these new buildings fit, they were comfortable, they had porches, which were a very normal and traditional part of residential architecture in St. Louis. And that gave folks a place to see their neighbors in the morning and have a cup of coffee and grab their paper. And so we went from a condition that it was a horrible, unsafe, public housing site, to a neighborhood that folks with options with a lot of options. I chose to move to that neighborhood because it was three blocks from the central business district of downtown St. Louis. It had a beautiful daycare center that was part of the management leasing office. And there was a beautiful pool there. There were great park spaces, all the streets were tree-lined and well-lit with new streetlights. There were handicap-accessible units throughout the entire development. And it was extremely well, it still is extremely well managed, beautiful landscaping. And so the end result of that development took something that was a horrible drain on the city. And it was a blighted, dangerous location. And now it’s a premier neighborhood. So in the course of just a phase, a construction phase or two, that shift can happen. So this kind of transformative, incredible change can be three years, four years, five years, six years, something like that, where 60 years of disconnection and redlining and just abandonment can be changed, and it can be changed permanently. That development I just described. There’s been five, six plus, seven generations of kids that have grown up and just that’s what they think of as normal now. So it becomes the new normal. And fortunately, that new normal is a healthy, safe, decent, sustainable normal.

Sarah Steimer 10:09
Okay, just you said the buzzword that was really the topic that we wanted to talk about today, which is healthy. And, you know, how can, how can architecture? How can the architecture of affordable housing, really help to create healthy communities. And you know, when we’re talking about health, let’s talk about residential health. Let’s talk about city health. And this is both mental and physical. So what is the connection there between architecture and health as it relates to affordable housing.

Randy Rhoads 10:42
So let me start with just a couple of definitions. So affordable housing, as defined by the federal government is when your housing cost of your income represents something less than 30% of your overall household income is going towards your housing costs. Currently, in the United States, over 11 million renter households spend more than 50% of their income on their rent. So we’ve got 11 million folks that, they’re almost twice as overleveraged as what the federal government standards are. So in creating something that’s affordable, that means that the rent structure is set up so that at the area median income, so the kind of the average income in that city, that rent at that location wouldn’t be more than what would be represented by about 30% of that income. The issue with that is that it’s very expensive to build anything. And so there’s going to be a space between the money that’s available to build things and what it’s going to cost to actually do it. So that gap gets filled by subsidy. So the subsidy comes from either the federal government or the state government, or other types of grants. So there’s things like low-income housing, tax credits, and other things like that. And when you apply for those kinds of grants and tax credits, there’s requirements that come with those and a big part of those requirements are trying to build healthy homes and healthy neighborhoods. So things like sustainability requirements, green design, things like the types of locations where you can build these, they have to be cleaned up environmentally, if there’s environmental issues, so that it’s a safe and healthy place for families to live and children to play. So the types of materials that are put into buildings, that they’re safe and healthy, they’re not off-gassing, so that the interior air environment inside apartments are healthy and asthma conditions are considered so that the folks with those kinds of issues in their life can live comfortably inside the new clean, modern apartment as compared to their older unclean unhealthy living conditions previously. The psychological and mental health aspects of affordable housing, when you have a stable home, you have a base of operation, you have a place that you have an address, you have a place where you can count on that, that being your home and not worrying week to week, or month to month, if that’s really going to be there. The issues associated with where these developments are located, how they’re built, the materials that are used, and then the programs that allow the residents to be able to afford these all combine to create physical and mental health betterments for people across a spectrum of incomes.

Sarah Steimer 13:53
There’s so much talk lately, of course, about how much rents are increasing across the country and just how unaffordable things have become. And it seems like any more thinking about like, oh, being able to choose something that’s healthy, being able to choose a location that’s going to be good for your mental and physical health and almost starts to feel like that’s a luxury, because you’re just so focused on what can I afford? How do I keep it to that 30% of my income, how is the work that you’ve done, made it so that it’s just kind of baked in, that health, instead of it being a luxury maybe.

Randy Rhoads 14:31
In order to get a low-income housing tax credit award? It’s a very large application that’s very detailed. And you have to show that the site itself, the location, where you’re proposing to do this has good bus lines or other types of mass transit connectivity, that that there’s a library nearby that there’s schools nearby, that if there are like I described some kind of either geotechnical or environmental problem on that site that you’ve got you to understand what it is. And it’s going to be part of the development of the project that will resolve those issues. So it’s such a competitive process in order to get the tax credits that the states and the federal governments realize you have to incentivize these good design decisions that end up putting healthy, sustainable features into the affordable housing. These are like threshold requirements. The end result is that if you get the tax credit award, by virtue of aligning with the requirements, it will be a sustainable, green-designed, pedestrian-friendly type of environment that’s got the modern amenities, heating, ventilating, air conditioning, all the kinds of things that a normal standard market rate apartment would have. The logic here is that the mixed-income approach has to meet the market, the design, and the features, and the amenities. And the colors and the characteristics of it have to meet a market standard so that there’s the possibility of attracting a mixture of incomes.

Sarah Steimer 16:22
Let’s talk about one example maybe of this mixed-income housing and in particular, how some of its features do help to improve the health of its residents, regardless of what income level they’re coming into these homes from,

Randy Rhoads 16:39
I’ll talk about a project they did in St. Louis called Six north. It’s an 80-unit apartment building. And one of the key unique aspects of that development is that 100% of the apartment units were designed with universal design approaches and principles. And universal design is an approach to design that looks to make buildings and spaces as flexible as possible for everyone so that whether you have some kind of mobility issue, or maybe your sight acuity has got some challenges, that you can be comfortable, and you can live and you can take care of yourself. And the idea that being able to take care of yourself and take care of your home, take care of your family, it seems like a pretty basic kind of thing. But at Six North when we open that building up, we had two residents that moved in both were in power wheelchairs are both quadriplegic. And one of the women had not been able to live with their son for three years because she couldn’t find a place to live that could she could physically get around and she could take care of him. But because of the way the building was designed with all of its universal design features and the ability for her to get in the front door and get to the elevator and get into her apartment. And then once inside her apartment get to every single part of it, because of all the clearances that were there, she was able to be reunited with her son and raise him and be a family. So yeah, it’s just an apartment building. But it became the the vehicle for this family to be reunited and live together and her to have her own ability to control her life. So the other kinds of features in that building would be things like a lot of natural light, lever handles on all the door handles, instead of a doorknob has a handle because a handle, you don’t have to have the same kind of physical dexterity to operate a lever handle as you do a knob. All the light switches were paddle instead of the smaller little light switch, all the electrical outlets were raised up to a higher dimension so that folks didn’t have to bend down as far to plug things in. There was an island in each of the kitchens that had an operable piston on it that allowed that end to raise up or raise down if you had back issues, or you’re maybe shorter, or you’re in a wheelchair, you can adjust that so that it worked for you. That dishwasher was raised up off the ground and so was the oven so you didn’t have to bend down as far it’s easier for everybody. So it’s not just a matter of accessibility. The light fixtures in the hallway were deliberately low glare so that folks with maybe some vision acuity issues could see where they were going. There was high contrast in the flooring materials at the entrances to each apartment had so that was also another wayfinding signal. The overall approach on that building just provided for 100% accessibility everywhere but it didn’t have any kind of institutional look or feel to it. It was a flagship for the firm that I worked for. And it still is to this day. The idea of thinking about having features inside apartments like what I just described became more of a standard kind of approach for us as we continue to develop new building types and new projects in other cities.

Sarah Steimer 20:24
You know, all these things that you’re talking about, where the idea that you’re designing around, maybe someone’s needs much better than possibly we previously were with these different sorts of affordable housing units, it builds into the independence of the individual and maybe doesn’t make them feel as forgotten. And we see what that does, not only to someone’s mental health, but as soon as you’re feeling better about stuff, as soon as you’re feeling like you have that independence and that ability to move about. It also does a lot for, of course, the economics of that city of that region. Because if you’re feeling good, you can get out there you can do more you can, you can be more. And that’s another really big piece of this conversation is affordable housing and economics or education. And with that in mind, though, I kind of want to pause this right here, because this is something that we will talk about in a future episode is the role that affordable housing plays in the economics of a region as well. But briefly, if you want to give us maybe just a couple sentences, to get us excited about that conversation,

Randy Rhoads 21:34
There’s so many great things to talk about. The idea of a connected community, it’s connected physically, but it’s also connected economically, it needs to be. And once you get a resident living in a place, maybe at a density that hasn’t happened for a long time, that all of a sudden, there’s rooftops there for the folks that are thinking about investing in a restaurant or businesses, there’s an economic engine that actually is now present that typically wasn’t there before. When you have a development that’s connected to pedestrian-friendly streets that are well lit, that encourage people to get outside and walk or run or take a bike. They’ve got options on how to get to stores and how to get to restaurants and to work The idea of the economic vitality being tied to the character and the physical safety, and the stability of that overall affordable housing neighborhood. They’re absolutely interlinked. And the other issue that I think is really critical to think about is that many companies are having a difficult time recruiting and then keeping staff as the world changes and things evolve, if there’s affordable housing, in close proximity. And I mean, if it’s a light rail line or two away or a bus stop away or close walking distance or biking distance. That’s an absolute attractive component that businesses can use to bring new people in, and then retain them. Because I think that one of the issues across the country is that with the struggle to try to find new employees, new staff, in many places, there is no affordable housing for that new staff to live in, or move to. So I think that there’s a whole economic underpinning to the aspect of why should businesses support affordable housing and potentially even help finance or at least politically, encourage affordable housing? It’s for their own bottom line.

Sarah Steimer 24:01
Well, we have quite a bit to talk about next time then. But thank you for that little bit of a preview. I’m really excited to get into that. Randy, thank you so much for taking some time to chat with us today. I really appreciate it.

Randy Rhoads 24:12
My pleasure, Sarah, so, so great to talk to you happy to pick it up and talk about this at any time.

Producer 24:26
Music for Good, Thoughtful hosts was written, produced, and performed by Sam Clapp. Our moderator is Sarah Steimer. Editing by Travis Estvold and a special thanks to our content development team, Amanda Herzberg and Marni Moore. For more information about the podcast, visit Thanks for listening.

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