Unpacking the Matrix 4/10: Housing

August 20, 2015

By: ArtPlace America

Those who have been following ArtPlace’s progress closely know that we talk about our work as investing in arts-based strategies to help achieve place-based outcomes in order to reposition arts and culture as a core sector of community planning and development.  In order to make sure that we are covering the entire field of community planning and development, we have identified ten sectors that generally cover that terrain.

At our annual Grantee Summit that we hosted in Philadelphia in May, we organized our breakout sessions around these ten sectors, featuring our grantees working in those areas in conversation with an expert from the field.  This post is the fourth in a ten-part series continuing those conversations, and it focuses on Housing.

Below is a summary of a conference call we hosted with Ellen Baxter (Founder and Executive Director of Broadway Housing Communities in NYC), Nancy Bieberman (Founder and President of the Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation in NYC), and Jen Leonard (Vice President and Director of National Leadership and Education of Center for Community Progress in Washington, D.C.).  A few other voices weighed in on this conversation including Justin Godard (also from the Center for Community Progress), and Colin Hamilton (from Artspace in Minneapolis, MN).


Housing is widely regarded as an essential human need, and—as residential building stock—it’s often one of the first visual signals within a community. As HUD Secretary Julian Castro recently tweeted, “A home is more than four walls and a roof, it’s a springboard from where folks can reach their dreams.”  While housing literally refers to the spaces in which we live, its impact as a sector can significantly influence both individual and community trajectories. 

Like all sectors on the matrix, housing encompasses myriad issues that overlap with others.  Homelessness, for instance, deals with housing by definition and also touches on health and human services, workforce development, and environment and open space policies. In an effort to home in on the intersection between housing and the arts, this post will focus on two issues: (1) how housing can symbolize the strength, identity, and values of a given community; and (2) how arts and culture can bolster and achieve broader housing policy goals.  

“Housing can be a civic anchor,” says Nancy Bieberman, who leads WHEDco—the community development organization behind residential, commercial, and cultural space in the South Bronx including the permanent home for the Bronx Music Heritage Center. Designed well and purposefully, housing “can address the needs and wishes of neighborhoods and spark broader community revitalization.” For Nancy, these positive effects influence everything from the occupancy of vacant storefronts to the improvements of streetscapes and schools.  

Ellen Baxter, who spearheads Broadway Housing Communities (BHC), incorporates artists into nearly all of her organization’s work in West Harlem and Washington Heights.  BHC developed the Sugar Hill Project, which includes 124 units of permanently affordable housing, an early childhood education center, and the Children’s Museum of Art & Storytelling all under one roof.  She found that arts and culture “elevated the spirit of community engagement, enriched the space for everyone” and brought ‘pleasure and relief’ to struggling communities. 

Conversely, housing can serve as a mechanism for enforcing social stratification. The journalist Thomas Edsall refers to the “‘poverty housing industry,’ a de facto alliance of multimillion-dollar nonprofit housing companies, city politicians, state and local housing authorities and grass-roots organizations,” with a self-interest in consigning affordable housing to the most impoverished neighborhoods. While it would be shortsighted to mandate that all affordable housing be located witin affluent communities, recent stories in the New York Times and The Atlantic support the argument that Section 8 housing vouchers stymie social mobility and trap residents in low-income areas with little to no civic and economic infrastructure. 

Arts and culture play a crucial role in these contexts, serving as both outlet and loudspeaker. The rise of graffiti culture and hip-hop music in ‘80s-era New York was borne from civic neglect and cultural displacement, taking root in downtrodden areas of Brooklyn and the South Bronx. Some socially conscious artists have used housing itself to broadcast these concerns: The acclaimed street artist JR has built an entire body of work plastering colossal portraits of marginalized people on building facades. But while his murals, like hip-hop, creatively express a narrative of place, they aren’t integrated into broader community renewal efforts.

Though there’s ample proof that the arts can substantively bolster the goals of housing developers, these benefits often require translation. Jamie Bennett, our Executive Director, learned this lesson at a recent meeting with the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. Jamie often emphasized creative placemaking’s ability to ‘foster social cohesion,’ until a keen observer summarized it in more housing-relevant terms: lower tenant turnover rates. If communities are closer knit, people will want to stay there and thus property owners will have less vacancy.

Translating the value of the arts to policymakers can be similarly challenging, particularly given the complexity of projects that housing-focused creative placemaking practitioners tend to take on.  Artspace’s Colin Hamilton outlines the challenge succinctly: “It’s one thing to sync up with a coordinated, focused network of housing, economic development, and public schools agendas, for example, and something very different to be in a position where we need to create alignment.” He knows this challenge well, as Artspace—an ArtPlace grantee—has created 35 mixed-use arts facilities across 15 states.  Nancy et al are no stranger to this problem either and messaged that their “biggest challenge is not government regulation itself, but fostering alignment across siloed regulatory agencies.” Through the Center for Community Progress, Jen Leonard supports policymakers and community development pratitioners who have deployed arts and culture strategies in dozens of neighborhood renewal projects.  She suggests that mayors could add a “revitalization” official to their cabinet to encourage cross-agency alignment. This person, who would report directly to the mayor, could streamline community development efforts by working with department directors to leverage resouces and programs across all sectors.

As many of you know, we’ll be conducting a Field Scan of the housing sector this fall as part of our Research work.  Hopefully that process will help uncover more of the work ahead in cementing arts and culture as a key driver of housing goals.  Are there things you’d like us to bear in mind during this process?  Other major roles the arts have played or can play in the realm of housing? Let us know via the comments section below.