Out of the Shadows

"Imagine you don’t have a home. Just think about what it would be like. I don’t think most of us truly understand what that means. For formerly homeless individuals, the simple act of turning the lock on their front door is life-altering,” says Brent A. Brown, AIA. It is that sense of security and empowerment that The Cottages at Hickory Crossing aims to provide for 50 of Dallas’ chronic cases of homelessness. Brown, the founder of buildingcommunityWORKSHOP, along with developer John Greenan of Central Dallas CDC, set out six years ago to tackle the problem through a variation on the Permanent Supportive Housing model. 

The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) defines Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) as “…decent, safe, affordable, community-based housing that provides tenants with the rights of tenancy and links to voluntary and flexible supports and services for people with disabilities who are experiencing homelessness.” This housing model targets the chronically homeless, who struggle with psychiatric disabilities, substance abuse, and persistent health issues. According to USICH, the homeless population’s death rate is already four times that of the general population, making prioritization of high-risk cases even more critical. 

Permanent Supportive Housing models — also known as Housing First models — have been implemented since the 1980s. While the Cottages project follows the guidelines of existing typologies, the team believed an alternative model could improve outcomes. A similar project — Martin Luther King, Jr. Village in Sacramento, California — was used as a case study. It consists of cottages in a mix of single and duplex models and, like Martin Luther King Village, clusters the units around shared space. To test the duplex model, bcWORKSHOP held focus group workshops with formerly homeless individuals. 

A game board was created with game pieces representing various amenities, from bedrooms to shared spaces. Participants were asked to recommend amenities and arrange elements on the “site” with discussion aimed at gathering spatial information backed by emotional and experiential reasoning. Through the focus groups, bcWORKSHOP determined that individual units were preferred. Participants cited the importance of creating identity, refuge, and comfort. They desired a diversity of spaces that could provide a range of options from extreme privacy to social interaction. 

Based on this feedback, the design team refined their shared space model, abandoning duplexes for free-standing individual units. Each cottage is 355 sf plus a small front porch. Open in plan, the bedroom and bath are separated from the living space by a millwork bar containing kitchen and storage functions. The straightforward plan provides tenants solitary space, space for interpersonal relations, and opportunities to engage with neighbors. While the same material palette is employed throughout, each cottage is individualized through manipulation of the roof shapes. 

Feedback from the engagement process, examination of site conditions, and historical research influenced the “cottages on the green” site design. The 2.9-acre site is bounded by interstates on two sides with a busy local street on another. By clustering the individual cottages with their backs to roadways and radiating the clusters around a common green, the buildings en masse create a perimeter barrier. Segmented fences covered in rose vines create additional visual and acoustic privacy. All of the clusters, circulation, and shared spaces are positioned toward a half-acre central green to maximize views and connectivity. The 11,212-sf roof of the services building defines the site’s edge along Malcolm X Boulevard. With 4,324 square feet of air-conditioned space, the bar building containing on-site social and leasing services creates a porous edge and supervised gateway into the grounds. Strategic siting encourages community interaction while providing a sense of protection, a need expressed by the formerly homeless focus group participants.

The landscape design was critical to the cottages on the green concept. Hocker Design Group led the effort to create an idyllic setting that would enhance comfort and promote healing. “The concept fosters 

the creation of an environment in which the resident can reconnect with nature and community inside the urban context of the larger city. It provides accessible site opportunities through productive community gardens and a central green with flexible programming potential,” said David Hocker. Meandering walks connect each cottage in a cluster, defining a shared landscape island. Low maintenance trees, shrubs, and grasses provide texture, color, and shade. City-required parking stalls were pushed to the perimeter, and curbless interior roadways were implemented to give precedence to pedestrians. The streetscape along Malcolm X Boulevard and Louise Avenue was also overhauled, introducing street trees and hardscape to encourage pedestrian circulation. Cottage design, siting, and urban context were all carefully considered in order to further the Housing First concept.

Back in 2009, when Dallas CDC and bcWORKSHOP were considering the design merits of a cottages model, another group of agencies was pursuing funding opportunities for permanent supportive housing. The groups converged, creating a dynamic partnership that included Metrocare Services (clinical mental health services), CitySquare (site-based social services), Dallas County Criminal Justice Division’s Mental Health Steering Committee (identifying target clients), and UT Southwestern Medical Center (principal investigator for demonstration project). The W.W. Caruth, Jr. Foundation Fund at Communities Foundation of Texas has provided the largest financial boost, with private fundraising and government grants covering the balance of project costs. This capital, along with the diverse partner group, made the development of the project possible. As a result, 50 of Dallas’ most vulnerable residents will have a place to call home this winter. 

The Dallas County Department of Criminal Justice’s Jail Diversion Program identified 300 highest utilizers of services as potential residents. More than 3,000 homeless people are estimated to be living in Dallas. The Cottages staff conducts assessments using recognized tools like the Vulnerability Index & Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool (VI-SPDAT) to determine the 50 neediest individuals. Each will be provided a lease with vouchers to cover their rent. No different than an apartment complex, residents are free to come and go, but they must follow campus policies. By providing housing first, precedent projects have shown that users are better able to seek the care they need. This is especially true when resources are targeted and easily accessible. The combination leads to better success rates and tangible cost savings to the public. A study of a Housing First project in Portland, Maine, showed significant decreases in emergency room visits, jail time, and healthcare visits by residents in the first year. They received more care at less cost, resulting in an average annual savings of $944 per person. 

The effectiveness of the Cottages model will also be measured. Program evaluation staff at UT Southwestern will assess the improvements in social, economic, mental health, and functional outcomes in the 300 chronically homeless residents identified. Both those housed at the Cottages and those on the waiting list will be followed. The evaluation will assess criminal justice involvement and document the impact on individuals’ medical, mental health, and substance abuse issues. The financial burden on the healthcare system and on society will also be appraised. 

The Cottages are taking on a complex societal problem by providing long-term housing to a population too often in the shadows. Meanwhile, under the web of interstate overpasses just west of the site, a contingent of Dallas’ homeless population has appropriated space and is rapidly building a tent city. The agglomeration of makeshift shelters stands in stark contrast to the orderliness of The Cottages, where people who were once chronically displaced will now have a home of their own, complete with a lock on the front door.

Audrey Maxwell, AIA, is a principal at Malone Maxwell Borson Architects.

Originally published in the November/December 2015 issue of Texas Architect.