Interview with Percy Yates
April 12, 2018
PERCY YATES alongside his wife and 18 month old daughter, is the resident of the family unit in the 2017 Jim Vlock Yale Building Project collaboration with Columbus House. They moved into their home on the corner of Eddy and Adeline streets in December.
PY: Never had a christmas like that. It was good. We had a huge tree and put it right there.
MSE: Any other great early memories?
PY: I had some people for the Super Bowl. It was like an L shaped party, to fit into this living room. We actually had to set up the smaller flat screen from our room and I set it up here so the people in the kitchen could see. A little crowded. My wife’s mom stopped by and fixed up some food. We had fun. One guy said, “man this looks like something off of MTV cribs.” That made me feel good. Yeah, the Super Bowl party was a success. Pretty low stakes since I’m a Broncos fan.
MSE: What about the everyday routine. Breakfast, dinner, bath time…?
PY: I’m usually the first one up. I work with her dad but I’m looking for more work. I’m home most days, get up first, come down, have my coffee, I open these [points to blinds]. My wife is a little bit more private, she doesn’t want people coming in and seeing our life. I don’t really care, so I come open these. I like to look out and see what’s going on. My daughter wakes up at five in the morning so I come down here with her. I get some cartoons on for her. I watch the news. It feels like a regular life. At one point we didn’t think that was possible. Through a home, that’s possible. We’re living just like everybody else. You know what I mean.
SDB: During construction, the neighbors and community seemed really supportive of the new house going up. Has that affected your experience living here in any way? The toddler next door came by wearing his toy tool set. His Dad asked if we needed a hand. The postman would yell “Hey great work!” “Ain’t no joke” a passer-by awed while pulled over to watch the crane pick a colossal roof panel.
PY: I feel that enthusiasm absolutely welcoming me. I have people walk by, “woah they’re finished, somebody actually lives there!” They’d seen the process from the beginning. They’re happy someone lives here. I was walking home the other day and there were two people outside taking pictures of the house. Walking around the corner. I was like Hi! They didn’t know where I was going, but when I walked into the house and pulled out my keys they were all excited and shocked. So they must have seen it from the beginning too.
It was very nice outside last night, so I took my daughter out and we played out in the driveway with her little bike. She ran around the house. For her to be able to do that, it’s great. The neighborhood to great. When it snowed, my wife almost cried – a group of kids came over and knocked on the door and was like can we shovel your driveway? It felt good. I see the neighborhood kids riding their bikes. I see that all the time.
MSE: What about the Val Macri residents, do you interact much with them?
PY: Right now we don’t have a garbage can. We’re going through something with the city. So for now, they [Val Macri] have a garbage we get to use. A big dumpster over there. I walk through there. I see the people over there. They know we’re the people that live here. The ‘nice house’ they call it. [Laughs].
MSE: And what do you think of the house?
PY: I love the windows in the bedrooms, actually. My daughter climbs up there and just sits there. I’ll show you all her toys are up there. She stays there for hours. Definitely gets a lot out of it—the big bay window. Pretty nice with this landing. We had the Christmas tree there. Just got Bo, he’s our [gigantic stuffed animal] bear, kind of hanging out there for now. Maybe we’ll get a desk, put a desk right there. I think that’s a good place for it.
I don’t know if you guys were going to ask me this, but I love the high ceiling and I love the light. You can turn the lights out and open everything and the light will come in. Its airy, its open. I love it. I really do. The best part about this right here, with her room. When she’s in there playing we can hear her. We can hear everything. If she bangs, we can hear it. You kind of want that. We’re downstairs, she’s upstairs.
SDB: Just a little disclaimer, we were only part of building it, so please don’t feel like you need to be polite.
PY: [laughter] Oh I’m going to tell you. The water gathering out there is a big problem. A month ago we had that really big snow storm, the snow was up outside of my door up to there. It kind of comes in. Not the breezeway, the breezeway is cool, but the way the rain comes in. That side has nothing, it comes in there. [MSE: Part of the roof covering the breezeway is a permeable louver which has the unintended consequence of allowing snow to come in. Additionally, the grading on the breezeway wasn’t quite right and the water pools in the middle.]
This couch is a little small. I might add an extension underneath it. [SDB: Percy is demonstrating the shortcomings of the built-in couch I worked on in a rushed afternoon in early July. We didn’t quite make our construction schedules and the couch ended up with a deeper cushion than we had planned on.The whole thing overhang and looked pretty uncomfortable to sit in. It was clearly a mistake on my part. It looked pretty unpleasant.] But the storage behind here is really good. I love it. [Phew]. We make it work.
SDB: What do you think about the dynamic with your neighbor and the overlapping of your apartments?
PY: That is weird, #1. I’ve never seen anything like that. It’s interesting from an architectural standpoint and a builder’s standpoint, but um, we can hear her and she calls my daughter her alarm clock. She doesn’t mind, at all. But she can hear everything that happens in our bedroom. If she wasn’t so great, maybe it would have been a problem. We talk. She brought some food over the other day.
My wife is better at architecture and spatial thinking. She can look at something and say that’s a waste of space or this or that because of her dad, who is a contractor. And she was actually saying that our room was in her apartment. Is our room in her apartment?”
MSE: Spatially it is. There’s a lot of padding between the two apartments, to minimize noise transfer. Your room straddles her bedroom and bathroom area.
PY: You know, you can’t hear a conversation, but you can tell someone is down there.
SDB: Anything you’d say to next year’s class building a different house?
PY: On the next project concrete floor probably wouldn’t be the right thing. Got to be really careful with my daughter on it. It’s hard to clean. Stuff just seeps in. The rugs are great. Mostly everything else, we love it. I love the stairs. That window, whoever made that. [Percy signals to the window from the children’s room into the kitchen] That was a great idea.
MSE: Someone really advocated for it, who was that? [Great job Dan & Kerry!] They really fought for that window.
SDB – How might you direct designers to start to think about the process of addressing homelessness in a more profound way? There’s a housing crisis all over the country and beyond. We need to build houses, shelters, roofs, for as many people as possible. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts about where to start.
PY: Homelessness is such a big problem. Not just at a national level but even right here in our city. I’ve been saying for years that Yale is prominent in our city. They should tackle homelessness some kind of way. It makes me so happy to know that Yale was a part of this.
To go from homelessness to a home like this makes you appreciate – gives you a sense that somebody’s got faith in you. That you can take care of this. You can take care of it and you can live here. Homelessness runs so deep. You can’t get out of it. There are so many other components that come with it. Substance abuse, mental health issues, that all leads to homelessness. That’s how I got homeless. My substance abuse led to mental abuse. My mental abuse led to more substance abuse. Which led to homelessness. So it’s about tackling some of them issues.
We actually lived in an abandoned house. Here in New Haven. We decided we didn’t want this and started making steps to change all of it. We were really homeless. You know, build more houses. I actually didn’t know that Columbus House had that place (Val Macri) up the street. I don’t know the numbers, but I assume more people are single than in families and it was good to have a single component and a family component. If this wasn’t built, we’d still be searching for housing.
I have a Section 8 voucher. I get assistance with my rent. Everybody doesn’t have that. Columbus house stepping in and helping out is invaluable. We had problems with credit checks, my criminal record had a part of it. It was hard for us to get housing in the places we wanted. We wanted a nice house, we wanted to live in West Haven, but we just couldn’t get it, but when I heard that I was eligible for this place and we’d seen it, we was like oh my god, what’s the catch!?!
SDB: It’s my understanding that there are a lot of vacant properties in New Haven and members of the homeless community licensed in the trades. Skills and capacities of citizens of New Haven and spaces that need renovation.
PY: Short answer—put ‘em to work! There are people in the homeless community of New Haven who are skilled in the trades and they’re just not getting the chance. Imagine how you felt good, building it and seeing someone live here. Imagine if you got to build it then actually live there. Taking vacant lots, taking some abandoned properties, doing a kind of a flip of a house. I actually work with my wife’s father and he flips houses. I do that, I’m kind of an apprentice of his. I do that part time. I’m learning. This is my second house working with him. It’s just amazing. To see the finished project is good. It feels really good.