Interview with Ellen Baxter

ELLEN BAXTER is the Founder and Executive Director of Broadway Housing Communities. She is a pioneer of supportive housing in New York City.


[Ellen Baxter is giving me a tour of the 2014 Sugar Hill Development designed by David Adjaye ]

SDB: You’ve been developing  properties since the late 80s, this is the 7th building. Throughout this time your thinking about affordable development and permanent supportive housing must have changed. How has the design of the architecture evolved with your strategy for deploying housing?

E: The evolution of our practice in creating and managing this housing over time has changed our thinking. Originally in the late 1970s, I was part of a group called the New York Coalition for the Homeless that brought a class action suit to the New York State Supreme Court that established a legal right for all homeless people to emergency shelter. Not a right to housing, just to emergency shelter. When the city started to warehouse homeless people in armories—more than 1000 people in one room and all that—we were propelled to create housing that was more humane, because that was pretty barbaric.

That’s what led to the development of our first building. At that time there was no government investment in supportive housing. The word didn’t exist yet. We felt our way through the renovations of our first buildings, never having worked before with an architect or a contractor or a development budget. It was a sharp learning curve. Once we started that, we asked, why aren’t families living in the same building? Why is homelessness the occasion to create a new form of housing that’s segregating single, formerly-homeless people? Since then, we’ve tried to avoid stigmatization and segregation of people.

SDB: Your ambition here at Sugar Hill was to create as much of a melting pot of the community as possible.

EB: Exactly. The first six buildings were largely created as solutions to homelessness. In the early 90s, we said, wait a minute, we can house families with children in the same building—over the objections of the government who said, no, you need seperate doors, children don’t belong in places with formerly homeless people. This professional bias was interfering with what was a more normalized form of mixed-use housing. In the case of our sixth building, the City would only pay for the studios and the State would only pay for the family units, neither would agree to the blend. So we took a pot from both sides and made it mixed-use. Once we were housing families, things clicked and we learned that we really needed to get into early childhood work. There is really no place in low income neighborhoods for children to access quality early education.

The literature about the achievement gap was really important for this building. The census data on the four quadrants around this site told us that 70% of children here were born into poverty. So we made the decision to dedicate as much square footage in this development to children as possible. They are the most important assets of a neighborhood and the best ambassadors for the integrated and diverse community.

SDB: Tell me about your process working with David Adjaye. Between handing him the brief and ribbon cutting, how much did he influence your vision?

EB: I have a lot to say about that question….

It’s important to know we chose two architects, the design architect and the architect of record. David was responsible for the common area, the exterior design, the Children’s Museum, and the Early Childhood Center. It was the first time he’s ever done an early childhood center. And it’s fabulous. Better than that. And that’s partly because he’s never done an early childhood center. He worked closely with our educator who is a master. So he listened to what she wanted and he made it happen. He really understood the values that we wanted to elevate in the project.

It’s remarkably good fortune that David responded to the RFP. I think what he achieved here reinforces the values that represent us. I think that’s how the kids, the tenants, how everyone feels. He was involved in every single decision until we opened, not just until the CDs were done. David was present right up to occupancy.

We also had an intellectual guide, a fellow named Steve Seidel who has spent his career on the faculty at the Arts in Education Program at Harvard. Steve was really fascinated by the idea that someone would want to create a contemporary art museum for children. So he invited Adjaye to go to this region in Italy which is the Mecca for early childhood practitioners. Some of the design of the early childhood center changed after David came back from that visit.

SDB: Can you tell me about the impact of the design now built?

E: You just don’t get a space like this for children in Manhattan anymore. They aren’t valued at the level of real estate. They go in the basement or someone else’s apartment. The best practice is to serve children 0-5, when kids are absorbing most skills, language, mathematical, and artistic skills. That idea of creative intelligence was really pushed forward by Steve Seidel.

You’ll see we’ve created a curriculum on architecture for 3 and 4 year olds and it’s really something. Children walk around with clipboards and sketchbooks. They’re creating blueprints before making models, thinking in 2D and 3D. They make bridge models, learning about weight, engineering, the purpose of bridges. Helping children understand that things take time. It’s not a slap-dash project.

We always say that there will be more architects coming out of this neighborhood. The museum is where they’ll bring their grandchildren and that’s, I think, the value of a cultural institution. More than anything, it grounds a development. I do believe that the combination of housing, education and art resonates all around the world. They are the anchors and unit base of a healthy community. So people have visited us from Korea, Brazil, Chile & Australia.

SDB: How can this type of project become replicable? What were some of your criteria as a developer?

EB: The first criteria that we really worked on most was the affordability level. We wanted the replication to be affordable at the very lowest economic bands—the median income level of this neighborhood or below. Because the current De Blasio affordable housing strategy is being constructed at a whole other income base. The message is that what becomes replicable is the ability to build architecture affordably. 70% of the 124 apartments above are below 50% of area median income (AMI), 20% are below 30% AMI and 20% are reserved for previously homeless families and individuals. That is probably one of the rarest features of the building. The rarity is understood by housing industry but not by educational or cultural perspectives.

Any mixed-use operation confuses everybody. The city prefers homogeneity, compartmentalization, and segregation so certain pots of money don’t run over into something they’re not supporting. Everyone is really interested in the boundary and how to quantify their share.

SDB: An architect like David Adjaye works internationally. You, on the other hand, are someone who’s focused her career in this community, this neighborhood. How would you comment on the process practicing in one place versus a wide geographic impact?

EB: That evolution of the practice was to better  integrate to preserve diversity, to acknowledge the history of where we were, and to invest in the highest priorities of the neighborhood: the children, making housing that’s truly affordable, and the museum which is a manifestation of our confidence. But we’re also making a statement here about global citizenship and the importance of the history of the community and children’s role in that.

[I looked at the image of Edgecombe Avenue Ellen pointed out earlier, where Thurgood Marshall and W.E.B. Dubois lived, right across the street. Next to it at a picture of a children’s march in 1917, a silent march with 10,000 people marching down 5th avenue. Children in the front of the parade, protesting lynchings and police brutality. 10,000 people. I never even knew that there was a demonstration of that scale 101 years ago.]

We had built six buildings, we could have built anything we wanted. The museum became a symbol for something that’s here to stay, something archival.  It was also an effort to diversify our funding base. When rents are kept so affordable, there’s no cash surplus to support an organization. So we’re looking for other ways to attract funding and cultural fundraising and cultural philanthropy in NYC. Someone once said to me, “Ellen, museums never make money.” I responded, “You should try raising money around poverty.”

So it’s all relative.