Media Mentions

Stanford Social Innovation Review: Housing the Homeless

Common Ground has helped reduce the number of people sleeping on New York City streets by opening a dozen residential buildings for the homeless and impaired in the last four years.


by Greg Beato

Ask Brenda Rosen to describe the organization she oversees as executive director and she will say that its “two biggest lines of business are as a real estate developer and a property manager.”

Given her location in New York City, this characterization hardly seems unusual—no doubt hundreds, maybe thousands, of other outfits in America’s most densely populated metropolis fit that description as well.

What makes Rosen’s description telling is the clientele her nonprofit organization, Common Ground, serves: chronically homeless people whose adverse life experiences or debilitating mental or physical health conditions have ostensibly rendered them “unhousable.”

Founded by Rosanne Haggerty in 1990, Common Ground operates on the principle that reducing homelessness isn’t just a public health or social services challenge, but a real estate challenge as well.
Partnering with city agencies, private developers, and other nonprofits, the organization has built, renovated, or started managing 16 buildings in New York and Connecticut that combine housing for people who were homeless or who have special needs (such as severe mental illnesses or AIDS) with housing for low-income working adults. In recent years, Common Ground has expanded rapidly. Between 2008 and 2012, it opened 12 buildings and increased the total number of units under its control from 1,453 to 2,959.

According to Rosen, Common Ground obtains financing for its capital projects from tax-exempt bonds, capital subsidies from city and state sources, and funds raised by selling low-income housing tax credits. “We’ve had strong partners in terms of capital and operational funding,” she says. “The [Mayor Michael] Bloomberg administration and the state have definitely committed to ensuring that more units were developed for people with mental illnesses and other barriers to housing.”

Creating Quality Housing
“This is architecture in which anyone would feel at home,” the American Institute of Architects (AIA) noted when it named Schermerhorn, a 217-unit building in Brooklyn, N.Y., as one of its 2011 Housing Award recipients in the category of “Specialized Housing.” A joint effort between Common Ground, the nonprofit arts organization Actors Fund, two private developers, and Ennead Architects (the firm that designed the building), Schermerhorn boasts a striking glass facade, a landscaped terrace on a second floor overhang, and a dance studio operated by the Brooklyn Ballet.

Other on-site amenities include a gym, a computer lab, cooking classes, and movie nights. The 266-square-foot studio apartments feature interiors so streamlined that the AIA described them as “ship-like in [their] ingenuity.” A translucent glass panel wall keeps the small space light and airy. “What we’ve known for a long time is that people respond better with more light,” says Rosen. “So we have been really intentional in trying to bring natural light into our buildings as we continue to develop them.”

In the early 1980s, when rising homelessness rates began to attract an increasing amount of national attention, no one was envisioning award-winning, LEED-certified buildings whose facades are “fabricated with a high percentage of post-consumer waste glass” as a potential solution to the problem. Instead, cities started setting up emergency shelters that offered temporary communal housing to people who would otherwise be living on the street. But homelessness rates weren’t rising because there was a shortage of places where you could crash for a few nights in a large open room with a bunch of strangers. They were rising because much of the housing stock that had traditionally served the lowest end of the market had been eliminated in the preceding decades.

In the first half of the twentieth century, residents of New York and other major cities had been served by a robust infrastructure of flophouses and single-room-occupancy hotels (SROs). Conditions in these dwellings were often squalid and unsafe, but they gave millions of urban-dwellers a way to maintain a private and autonomous foothold in the city. Over time, however, New York and other cities began implementing new zoning codes and regulations that made it harder to develop and maintain these types of buildings profitably. In addition, efforts to eliminate urban blight and replace flophouses and SROs with buildings that were aimed at families and higher income tenants further reduced this type of housing. From the mid-1950s through the mid-1980s, New York City lost more than 100,000 units of SRO housing.

Social services alone could not combat that fact. Temporary shelter programs could at best offer temporary relief. In large part, homelessness was an infrastructure problem.

In 1991, using a $28 million loan provided by the city of New York, Common Ground purchased its first building, the Times Square Hotel, a landmark SRO. After major renovations, Common Ground reopened it in 1992. Using an approach known as “supportive housing,” Common Ground offered health care, employment counseling, and other social services on site at the Times Square. But in contrast to many emergency shelter programs, it didn’t require tenants to participate in any of these programs as a condition of occupancy. It simply made them available.

Common Ground also asked its tenants for feedback. “We did a lot of focus groups,” says Rosen. “We asked them about everything down to what kinds of appliances were working well for them. Our programs and services are really designed around what tenants have told us their needs are. We do a lot of listening.”

In almost every Common Ground building, some units are reserved for working adults who meet specific income thresholds. At the Schermerhorn, 100 studios, which rent for $635 a month, are intended for people making between $21,770 and $34,860 a year. This model not only generates revenue and integrates formerly homeless people into a more socially balanced setting, but also forces Common Ground to maintain a mindset that is more “real estate developer” or “property manager” than “case worker.” Renting units to people who are customers, not clients, encourages it to create places that feel mainstream rather than institutional, places where, as the AIA put it, “anyone would feel at home.”

Helping the Chronically Homeless
Of course, for the chronically homeless, transitioning from the streets into any building—even a well-designed one—is a major life change. Helping people who’ve been living on the streets for years often requires methods and resources different from what’s needed for people who are homeless because of a recent crisis, such as the loss of a job or eviction from an apartment.

In 2004, to better serve people who had shown resistance to traditional outreach efforts, Common Ground introduced a program it calls Street to Home. “Generally, people who’ve been on the street for so long are hesitant to come inside for any kind of services,” says Amie Pospisil, Common Ground’s associate director of housing operations and programs. “So we bring everything to them. Literally, we’re on the street doing psychiatric evaluations, addressing minor medical needs, completing paperwork for housing. In some cases, we’ve actually had people who we walked through the entire process who never came into our office, not for one second. The first time they came indoors for anything was when we moved them into permanent housing.”

Common Ground also works with the City of New York on a program called Safe Haven, which the city introduced in 2007 as an alternative to its traditional shelters. “Contrary to normal shelters that have curfews and other rules, a Safe Haven essentially has no curfew, and the basic rules are no using [drugs or alcohol] on the premises, no violence, and no weapons,” says Rosen. “Besides that, you can really come and go as you will, and staff is there to help you move into permanent housing.”

In each borough of New York, the city contracts with a single nonprofit agency to oversee the Safe Haven program. In Brooklyn and the Bronx, that agency is Common Ground. (Common Ground also handles part of Manhattan as a sub-contractor.) “Around 50 percent of the people we work with in the Street to Home program end up going to Safe Haven,” says Pospisil.

In one of the buildings where Common Ground operates its Safe Haven program, the Andrews in Manhattan, tenants live in one-room cubicles that, unlike the studios in most Common Ground buildings, do not have kitchen facilities or private bathrooms. In other words, the Andrews is more like a traditional SRO or flophouse. Thanks to the Safe Haven program, there is no fee for occupancy. Otherwise, the Andrews functions much like the lodging houses of old, which gave city residents a bare-bones but flexible way to find shelter. Although Common Ground continues to make permanent housing its primary goal, the Andrews and similar buildings help restore a crucial part of urban infrastructure. As a result, homelessness in New York City is declining.

Every year, the New York City Department of Homeless Services conducts a one-night count of people who are living on the street (as opposed to those who are living in city-run shelters or some other form of temporary housing). There have been some sharp fluctuations in the count over the last four years, but the overall trend is down. “From 2005 to 2012, we’ve reduced homelessness [the number of people living on the street] from 4,395 people citywide to 3,262,” says Pospisil.

Even with Common Ground’s rapid expansion, however, the demand for additional long-term solutions remains strong. “In New York City, there’s still no surplus of supportive housing,” says Rosen. There’s also no surplus of developable space. “That’s what we spend a lot of our time doing—going out and looking for sites. And then once we find it, working with our partners in the state and New York City to move the process along.”