New Vlock House Wows In The Hill

Sonya Schoenberger photoSandra could hardly contain her excitement. The house was, in her estimation, perfect: beautiful, modern, and full of natural light. Best of all, she exclaimed, “Look at all the people it holds!”

Sandra joined hundreds of officials, housing advocates and students Monday night at an open house showcasing the product of a partnership between Columbus House and the Yale School of Architecture: a new two-family house in the Hill that will soon be occupied by formerly homeless individuals. Like Sandra.

The joint Yale School of Architecture/Columbus House effort is called the Jim Vlock First Year Building Project. In 2017, students built a two-unit home on Adeline Street that now houses Columbus House clients.

For much of the past year, Yale students have worked to design and build a second home in partnership with Columbus House, the nonprofit operator of homeless shelters and programs.

The open house buzzed with energy as students, donors, faculty, and Columbus House staff filtered in and out of wood-paneled rooms, up and down the home’s staircase, and into the spacious backyard. Alison Cunningham, CEO of Columbus House, spoke of her gratitude to all of the individuals in the room who made the project possible – donors who provided windows and appliances, Yale School of Architecture faculty who have guided students through hands-on community projects for decades, and students who worked long hours to imagine, design, and build the home.

Few were more exuberant than Sandra. Sandra has been in Columbus House’s subsidized housing program for five years. Before that, she was homeless for seven. She currently lives in a subsidized one-bedroom apartment; she will soon need an extra bedroom for her teenage daughter, who is aging out of the foster care system. She’s hoping to be placed in a two-bedroom unit where she and her daughter can live together as her daughter finishes her final year of high school.  She said that the two-bedroom unit in this duplex, which also contains a separate one-bedroom unit, would be perfect.

Cunningham said that the units will be filled based off the New Haven housing wait list, with one going to a single individual and the other to a family. Columbus House runs a shelter but also helps individuals transition into subsidized housing. Those in subsidized housing contribute 30 percent of their income towards rent. The house on Button Street will operate under the same model.

Students designed and built the home with Columbus House clients in mind. Miriam Dreiblatt, a second-year Master of Architecture student who helped build the home over the summer, said that students designing the project were thinking about both universal criteria for desirable homes and criteria that might be of greater significance to previously homeless populations, like privacy.

Cunningham noted that the home — with its large windows and skylights — embodies a sense of openness that is important to her clients, but also has window dressings and locking mechanisms to provide a sense of security.

Adam Hopfner, an architecture professor who oversaw the home’s design and construction as director of the Jim Vlock Building Project, said that the partnership with Columbus House helps “expose students to forces other than our own imagination as to what shapes architecture.” Students volunteered at Columbus House and met with individuals in the shelter while designing and building the home.

Sandra said she loves the skylights and windows. She is also enamored of the home’s “gorgeous” sleek design, and is particularly excited about the forthcoming solar panels, which will soon provide a sustainable energy source for the home and surrounding community. These panels, she exclaimed, are the “coolest part of the whole thing.”

Sandra noted that she didn’t see any other Columbus House clients at the open house. Most people appeared to be bused in from Yale’s campus. But she did see a few people from the surrounding neighborhood.

She has applied for a spot in the home and hopes that she and her daughter will be chosen. After seeing so many people in the home during the open house, she is already daydreaming about hosting large family gatherings.

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posted by: HewNaven on October 16, 2018  11:47am

Yale could probably afford to build 100 homes like this each year in New Haven. This is a perfect example of a token gesture.

posted by: anonymous on October 16, 2018  1:00pm

HewNaven, the U.S. government could very easily afford to build hundreds of thousands of high-quality homes like these in urban and rural areas throughout the nation if it spent a tiny fraction of its GDP on housing people, like every other wealthy industrialized nation in the world, instead of on subsidizing homes for wealthy people (through the mortgage interest deduction), on wealthy people’s retirements (by waiving various taxes that primarily help very rich people buy stocks), and on the military. 

But our Senators are predominantly older white millionaires, and they want to help out their friends and be richer themselves, so they make these types of choices.

posted by: HewNaven on October 16, 2018  2:46pm

anonymous,

Great point!

posted by: Hill Resident on October 17, 2018  7:58am

As one who is a recipient of one of Yale’s ‘token’ gestures, it is appreciated. Thank you Yale, Adam and students for making another housing opportunity available in the Hill. This partnership with Columbus House will provide a beautiful, brand new home for a single individual and family, and can change their lives for a long time to come. It’s beautiful!

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on October 17, 2018  9:01am

HewNaven,

While Yale University’s endowment is quite large, these houses are funded through the Jim Vlock Building Project at the Yale School of Architecture, which is a much more limited fund requiring substantial faculty oversight, and months of volunteer design and construction labor from a small army of graduate students. The point of the program is not to build as many houses as possible throughout New Haven. The program revolves around providing students with experience in planning, designing, constructing, and delivering a residential development project. The fact that a habitable house results at the end of this process is pretty remarkable.

posted by: wendy1 on October 17, 2018  11:02am

Yes Yale could afford to house all homeless here who wanted indoor plumbing and privacy.  How will this building work?  I wish there was more detail in the article.  The building is definitely appealing and I would be willing to live there even if I had to share some of the rooms.  Will there be a manager or concierge?  What is the utility setup, etc?  Subsidized housing can include private apts. as well as dorms or group housing just as homeless people have different needs or wants.

This summer, I personally rescued a skinny middleaged man living on a bench.  After getting to know him a little, I took a chance, bought him a makeover and put him up in my studio at 360 State.  He was a good “guest”.  Within a week or so, I got him multiple job offers (he had skills worth money) and I found an affordable rent for a room in a shared home (2 people) near his job.  I did him and the city a big favor…and made myself feel good.  He pays taxes and is saving some of his income.  I am an old lady no longer wealthy.  If I can do this, Yale can.

posted by: HewNaven on October 17, 2018  12:47pm

Housing instability is the key to unlocking so many doors, just as Wendy1 describes in her anecdote. Yale can afford to do more than 1 feel-good project each year.