Go big AND go home
New York City is known for its beacons: the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the late and future World Trade Centres.
Last month I visited another beacon – or at least a building that deserves to be: Common Ground’s The Prince George building in Manhattan.
The Prince George is a majestic heritage building. Walk past the brass plaque and the library-style security desk and enter a world of ornate charm. The lobby looks like a grand old hotel, or perhaps a posh lawyer’s office.
In fact, it is a 416-unit supportive housing building – home to 208 people with long histories of homelessness, and another 208 low-wage earners.
How do they do it?
In Canada, most people believe that supportive housing developments should be small. In Toronto, 20- to 40-unit buildings are the norm, and many are single houses. These small developments are designed to blend into neighbourhoods. But they are also designed to be manageable. Many people believe that concentrating too many people with mental illness, addictions or a history of homelessness is just asking for trouble.
The Prince George flies in the face of conventional wisdom. How do they do it? I asked Rosanne Haggerty, the founder of Common Ground and now President of Community Solutions – a spin-off organization that strengthens communities to end homelessness. She rattled off six keys to success.
- Good design. Think homes, not institutions. The building must be appealing as well as functional, with amenities that allow tenants to enjoy the building – not just their units. The Prince George features a gym, rooftop garden, art studio, computer lab and on-site laundry.
- Income mixing. The 50/50 mix of low-end-of-market and deeply subsidized housing protects the building from stigmatization.
- Strong on-site management. You need a manager to act as the building’s mayor, or perhaps the mom– someone accountable for the building’s success, who can create a warm, compassionate tone but is ready to take charge in a crisis.The Prince George has only a few simple rules – pay the rent and be a good neighbour – but these rules are rigorously enforced. Skip a rent payment and you’ll hear from staff before the end of the week. Create trouble for your neighbours and reject offers of help and you’ll find yourself facing evicion.
- The right employees, and lots of them.Staff are chosen for their willingness to solve problems, work across professional boundaries and do everything it takes to help tenants thrive.The Prince George has 12 on-site maintenance workers, a roster of concierges (security guards with a customer service attitude), and an on-site rent administrator. Intake, rent calculations and accounting are done off-site through Common Ground’s central offices.There are also 12 social workers in the building, including an on-site director. A 1:17 staff-to-tenant ratio may seem like a lot – although it’s a 1:35 ratio if you include the 208 wage-earners who also take advantage of the social work staff. But it’s lower than the 1:10 ratio for ACT teams that support people on the street. It might even be lower than the staffing from multiple agencies who run in and out many TCHC buildings but have never co-ordinated their services.
- Linkages to services. NYC is rich in social services and it’s the Prince George’s on-site director’s job to orchestrate these services for maximum benefit. These agency partnerships enable tenants to take advantage of specialized services without trapping resources in one building.
- Links to the community. When Common Ground purchased the Prince George in 1999 it inherited a 5,000 square foot Neo-Renaissance ballroom on the ground floor. It worked with design schools and agencies that employ youth and people with HIV/AIDS to create a fabulous events venue. The ballroom brings in revenue that support Common Ground’s programs. But it also brings thousands of people into the building who look about in wonderment and ask, “Can this be social housing?”Common Ground also launched a Community Supported Agriculture program for residents of the Prince George and their neighbours in the Madison Square District. Participants receive fresh produce each week from June to October delivered to their door.
Paying for the staff you need
Anyone who works in social housing – and particularly at Toronto Community Housing – will wonder, “How did Common Ground ever get the money to create and maintain this building?”
They got off to a good start, acquiring the building cheap in bankruptcy court when the previous owner defaulted on the mortgage and taxes. To pay for renovations, they cobbled together federal housing dollars, state homelessness and mental health funds and $14 M in tax credits. Operations are supported by rents, conventional rent subsidies, a tax abatement and support funding for people with mental illness and HIV/AIDS.
Common Ground secured this funding by demonstrating supportive housing saves lives and saves money. A study now on Common Ground’s website compares the $56,350 per year it takes to support one un-housed person with mental health issues with the $24,190 it takes to house the same person in supportive housing.
Could we do it here?
Toronto may not have many heritage high-rises waiting for a new owner. But I can think of at least a dozen large Toronto Community Housing buildings that could benefit from Common Ground’s experience.
These “high need” buildings house a large contingent of people with mental illness, an addiction or a history of homelessness – but without the supports that would allow these tenants to succeed. The result is buildings that have become dis-functional, with huge costs for both TCHC and the people who live there.
In a blog post last March I described one of these buildings: a 319-unit Scarborough tower with 20 vacancies, $21,000 in arrears and over 1000 incidents per year that were serious enough to warrant a call to TCHC’s Community Safety Unit.
What would it take to get this building, and the dozen or so others like it, back on track? That’s the topic for another blog.
 Supportive housing is designed for people who need built-in supports, such as people with mental illness, addictions or HIV/AIDS; youth; victims of violence; or frail seniors.