The Hyde-Blakemore Condominiums, developed for lower income families, have many modern details, including a flying-V roofline that channels rain to a garden below.

Boston Globe 8/3/2008

Looking good: Developers add modern touches to affordable homes

Among the humble brick and vinyl suburban-style houses along Hyde Park Avenue in Roslindale, the Hyde-Blakemore Condominiums stand out.

There are the mahogany-louvered fences, the solar panels, and the flying-V roof line on the main building, which besides looking cool, channels rainwater into a landscaped rock garden.

Such modern flourishes are rare in a city that cleaves to architectural convention, but they are especially striking considering that Hyde-Blakemore was built for lower-income families. The newly completed buildings defy the tacky stereotype of government-subsidized housing, and for the architects and developers behind a new crop of affordable projects, this is the whole idea.

"People come in and see wood floors instead of carpet, granite countertops instead of Formica, and it casts the whole project in a different light," said architect Matthew Littell, a principal with Utile, a Boston firm that has made its mark with ultra-modern residential buildings, most notably in South Boston. "It's a lot of bang for the buck."

Indeed. A two-bedroom unit at Hyde-Blakemore is priced at $167,000 and a three-bedroom is $247,000. Each unit cost $328,000 to build, with $1.8 million of the project's $4.2 million budget coming from city and state affordable housing funds. The condos are available to households making less than the median annual income, $74,000 for a family of three.

Utile worked with the nonprofit developer Urban Edge on the project, which is about a half-mile south of Forest Hills and consists of 13 units in two duplexes and a three-story building.

Utile is also collaborating with Urban Edge on the residential portion of the Jackson Square complex in Jamaica Plain, and the firm is working with Chelsea Neighborhood Developers on a 48-unit affordable apartment complex, part of the city's massive Box District redevelopment plan.

Littell said Hyde-Blakemore represents a new stage in the evolution of affordable housing.

"Starting in the 1980s, after the big brick public housing model became invalid, these woodframe Easter egg-colored villages began appearing," he said. "Gradually they became more in synch with the adjacent neighborhood. What we're seeing now is a much better second generation of that."

It's not just in the Boston area that affordable housing is getting sexier. Last year, actor Brad Pitt commissioned a national competition to come up with model low-cost homes for New Orleans's hurricane-ravaged Lower Ninth Ward.

Glossy design journals regularly feature affordable projects, and affordable housing design is one of the awards bestowed annually by the American Institute of Architects.

High-quality materials and design, however, serve a more practical purpose in projects like Hyde-Blakemore. In a city where half the residents can't afford the average market-rate unit, low-cost housing developers must compete for buyers.

"There are still a lot of homeownership units floating around in the city, so we're trying to do the best we can to attract buyers," Littell said.

So far, the strategy seems to be paying off. Four of Hyde-Blakemore's 13 units are under agreement and prospective buyers showed up at the first open house last month in large numbers. Given that the foreclosure crisis has constricted financing both for lower-income buyers and affordable projects in the pipeline, Urban Edge is cautiously optimistic.

"We're demonstrating that if you do a development that has all the benefits, including location, buyers are able to recognize these distinguishing elements," said Mossik Hacobian, the president of Urban Edge. "It's not like the units are all being snapped up in a week, but so far they're moving quickly."

Clyde Freeman, who attended the open house last month with his wife and three children, was impressed. "It's a lot more than you would expect. There's a lot of nice touches that make for comfortable living," he said. And proving the real estate maxim, Freeman said a key selling point was the Roslindale location, preferable to the rougher neighborhoods where many affordable units are located.

The modern look and modest scale of projects like Hyde-Blakemore are meant not only to appeal to buyers, but neighbors wary of density and declining property values.

"In every building we do, there is always a lot of community planning, talking to neighbors about what they want to see," said Jen Faigel, community development director for the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation.

The nonprofit recently built 13 homes at scattered sites throughout Jamaica Plain that are notable for their vernacular styles and modern color palettes. The houses were designed by The Narrow Gate, a firm that is responsible for a significant portion of the new generation of affordable buildings in the Boston area, including the large mixed-use Dudley Village project.

City and state officials have also played a role in raising affordable building standards, mandating the use of high-grade materials that are durable.

Evelyn Friedman, Boston's chief of housing and neighborhood development, said the focus on design was part of a concerted strategy to alter public perceptions of affordable housing. "Ten to 15 years ago, people worried that affordable housing was going to reduce property values and not look as good," she said. "Because of the way they look and the quality of the product," this is no longer the case.

A natural nexus is also emerging between affordable housing and green building, given the long-term cost and health benefits for homeowners and tenants. The city recently launched the Green Affordable Housing Program, requiring larger projects to meet national environmental standards and promoting green building elements through a $2 million grant from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative.

Now that home prices are falling, nonprofit developers and city officials say affordable units, whose resale value is restricted, need to be all the more attractive to compete with lower-end market rate properties.

Friedman says the new generation of affordable housing can stand toe-to-toe with the market. "A buyer [in the 80 to 120 percent median income category] could stretch and may be able to purchase an unrestricted property, but they're not going to get a new green unit with landscaping, and chances are they'll have to do a lot of rehab work," she said.

More photos from this project