Making a Flophouse a Home, and a Decent One at That
The lowly flophouse has all but vanished from the urban landscape, swept away by the well-meaning forces of housing reform, city planning and gentrification. But Rosanne Haggerty, whose work housing the homeless won her a MacArthur fellowship in 2001, thinks it is time to give the flophouse a second chance.
The immediate object of Ms. Haggerty's affection is one of the last surviving lodging houses on the Bowery in Manhattan, the Andrews House, a 97-year-old "cubicle hotel" where aging men, many of them alcoholics, have whiled away countless decades in sunless cubicles, television screens flickering on nicotine-stained walls.
Ms. Haggerty is now reinventing the Andrews House and, in the process, she hopes to answer an unexpected question: Could a flophouse — a good flophouse, well designed and humanely managed — become, for people who have steered clear of other forms of housing in favor of the street, a critical first step toward a permanent home?
The undertaking, by the organization Ms. Haggerty founded in New York City in 1990, Common Ground Community, one of the country's largest nonprofit developers of so-called supportive housing, has attracted the attention of people who work with the homeless in other cities including Toronto, San Francisco, Minneapolis and Chicago.
"We are fundamental believers in permanent housing," said Ms. Haggerty, who hopes to move residents into renovated parts of the Andrews House in August. "We're calling the Andrews first-step housing. We want to get people now alienated from the idea of living in housing to enter in on their own terms, and then work with them from there."
Once, most major cities had a lodging house district, a skid row. In the 1930's and early 40's, there were 50 to 100 flophouses along the Bowery. The street was home to thousands of men, mostly single — a ready industrial army of unskilled migrant day laborers for any employer in need of gang labor.
But after World War II, industries moved out of cities and mechanization changed the demand for labor. Skid rows became repositories of retired, elderly men. Without lobbies, men socialized on sidewalks, some with bottle in hand. Lodging houses were perceived as squalid magnets for a rough crowd and the occasional criminal.
"Any kind of single-room-occupancy hotel was seen as a bad thing," said Paul Groth, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and author of "Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in the United States." "They were the favorite target of urban renewal. It was the old, messy city; these were people you didn't want around. They reminded you that capitalism wasn't working for everyone all the time."
Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, believes that the decline of the lodging houses, boarding houses and S.R.O.'s (where residents could rent not a mere cubicle but a fully enclosed room) "was probably a big contributor to the emergence of homelessness."
Ms. Haggerty's project arose out of more than 100 interviews that Common Ground conducted in soup kitchens and shelters in 1997. The aim was to understand the group of homeless people who seemed uninterested in the kind of housing, with on-site social services, that Common Ground offered. What would they prefer?
Many said they wanted something small, private, safe, cheap; they wanted just enough space for themselves and their belongings. They had a little money, though not enough for an apartment. They could pay. And they wanted anonymity.
"They were really talking about a lodging house," Ms. Haggerty said. "Nothing grand, a modicum of privacy, anonymity." Today in New York City, fewer than 40,000 legal S.R.O. units remain, down from 150,000 to 200,000 in the late 1950's. The number of cubicle hotels — a step down from an S.R.O. — has dwindled to fewer than a dozen, most of them within a few blocks of the Andrews.
"None of us had focused on the Bowery — a place you could get a toehold, where for a couple of bucks a night you could get something safe, private, no questions asked," Ms. Haggerty said. The interviews, she said, "got us thinking, almost against our wishes: What if you were to take what we're hearing seriously and try to fill this need?"
Common Ground invited homeless people to focus groups: What would the ideal unit look like? Over and over, people would ask for paper and pencil, then sketch the simplest outline of a Monopoly house — a three-sided box with an upside down V for a roof.
Common Ground met with the Fire Department and Department of Buildings to discuss complying with codes. Potential residents wanted the cubicles to be roofed, for security. But the Fire Department said the walls could not reach the ceiling; there had to be space for light, air circulation and sprinkler systems.
In 2000, Ms. Haggerty spent several months in Japan on a fellowship from the Japan Society studying efficient design. She met with people in the prefabricated construction industry and the designers of capsule hotels, places where businessmen bed down for the night in cubbyholes the size of refrigerator boxes for, say, $30.
She came to think that design is the great "bridger." It is not the amount of space that matters; it is how well the space is designed. The context of the space — the other amenities nearby — is also important. And there is more than one way to design a unit.
Common Ground was already looking for a suitable building. Lofts were too expensive, and Common Ground was outbid for one lodging house by a man who planned to convert it into luxury condos. Finally, Common Ground found the Andrews and bought it in 2002 for $2.3 million.
Built to house 200 people, the building was six stories high and only 17 feet wide. Inside, submarine-style corridors lined with cubicles ran lengthwise into gloom. The number of residents had dwindled to 90, men in their 40's to their 80's. Shari Siegel, now the director, said that men were dying there at a rate of about one a month.
"The only appointment I'm keeping is with the undertaker," one resident told his caseworker when she pressed him to keep a doctor's appointment, Ms. Siegel remembers. Two days later, the man was dead. A fellow resident peered over the top of the cubicle.
"Shari," he said. "I think you've got a dead body upstairs."
It took 13 Dumpsters to empty the Andrews of detritus — old suitcases, calendars, clothing, Chinese menus, whatever residents agreed to part with. The exterminator came to be called, jokingly, part of the case-management team. Common Ground installed Ms. Siegel, who is a nurse; it set up a health clinic and brought in a social worker.
In 2003, Common Ground and the Architectural League of New York held a design competition for the units, 175 to 300 square feet. They received 189 full submissions from 13 countries. A jury, including the chairman of the architecture department in the Harvard Design School, selected five winners. Two prototypes went on display at the Municipal Art Society last summer.
Among those who visited was Arthur Harttman, a 73-year-old Air Force veteran and former dance instructor who moved into the Andrews 13 years ago, drawn by the "old-timers." Mr. Harttman has become an admirer of the new Andrews House social worker, whom he calls the Princess and who recently helped him get a new set of teeth.
"Sometimes the Princess and I used to go to the nursing home, on Greenwich Street, and volunteer our time and dance with the old-timers," Mr. Harttman, rail thin with wispy gray hair, said in an interview. Offered a chance to go to the Municipal Art Society exhibit, he eagerly went.
"I thought it was great," he said. He liked the prototype called "The Ordering of Things" best. It was bigger than his current cubicle, which fits barely more than a cot. It had lots of shelves and a bed on rollers. The top half of the door could swing open — perfect for summer.
"They've done a wonderful thing for all us fellows here," Mr. Harttman said.
The first phase of the Andrews renovation will be completed this summer. Eventually, there will be room for 146 men, including the 48 current residents, who can stay as long as they like. New arrivals can stay for three weeks on their own terms; after that, they will be required to accept certain services, including housing-placement counseling. The charge will be $7 a night."We don't want to encourage the lodging houses to be permanent housing," Ms. Haggerty said. "But we see the need for them as a complement to other housing as a place for people who need a place to start. We need a much bigger range of housing options if we're going to find a place for everyone.