If you think you know what subsidized housing being sold to American worker bees looks like these days, glance at the photos on this page.
See the gabled roofs. The Palladian and bay windows. The cute porches and covered entryways.
How about that mansion in the middle?
They look just like houses going up in some upscale neighborhoods. Maybe they remind you of your street? Or, perhaps, they're even more charming?
As you may have already guessed, this is a setup. Those are all what is called "affordable" housing -- units that get some form of public subsidy and are being sold to low- and moderate-income families..
It's no accident that they look so swell. Housing experts say good design that fits in with existing communities is a top priority for those who build homes for people who otherwise are priced out of the real estate market.
Looking good, the experts say, is one key to winning over not just potential buyers but also potential neighbors, thereby conquering the dreaded "not in my back yard," or NIMBY, syndrome.
"One of the most important things we can do . . . is to create attractive affordable housing that existing neighbors welcome," said David Jeffers of Fannie Mae's Virginia partnership office. "And one of the single best tools we have is making it look a lot different than they expect it to look. People have preconceptions about what quote-unquote 'that housing' looks like and what quote-unquote 'those people' who live there look like."
So we're not talking institutional. We're talking anti-institutional. Warm. Welcoming. Front porches. Charming window treatments. Nice brick. Garages.
This is not your father's public housing or anything close. It's the reaction to public housing.
Those flat, gray, drab projects of the 1930s to the late 1960s that went on and on for blocks or up and up and up "taught us a lesson," said Stacey Stewart, president of the Fannie Mae Foundation, which is backing affordable-housing communities around the country with its chief funder, Fannie Mae. The lesson "is that poor design . . . can play a critical role in the way that people perceive and accept their surroundings and in how neighbors see them. . . . Public housing was too institutional, too dense, and it often didn't blend into the surroundings. So people felt isolated from the rest of the community. They felt stigmatized."
Erasing the stigma, Stewart and others said, is a goal for builders of all assisted housing, whether government managed, privately rented or owner occupied.
Assisted housing and public housing are not necessarily the same. Public housing is subsidized and managed by the federal government. The units shown here have government assistance or financial backing of some sort, as well as help from banks and nonprofits, but they're all owned by the occupants.
In some cases, the lines are blurry. Today public housing is being aggressively redeveloped into attractive and often mixed-income rental and for-sale communities. So some of the pictures here are from communities with both rental and ownership components.
The definition of affordable housing is also a bit blurry. Generally, in the owner-occupied market, including the homes pictured, it refers to housing built for those making the area's median income or less. That's about $82,000 for a family of four in the Washington region, and about half that in the District. There's considerable debate about whether the poorest of the poor should get help or whether it should go to workers who can't afford homes, but that argument is separate from what the housing looks like.
From what the pictures show, some of it is looking pretty good. That, developers and community groups say, is because looking good sells.
"We recognize that what we built for years, those blocks and blocks of monotonous housing that Americans provided for people of low income, was awful," said William H. Kreager, a principal at Mithun Architecture in Seattle and an expert on affordable housing for the American Institute of Architects. "And it wasn't just the people surrounding it who didn't like it. Even the people who lived there didn't like it."
Today's emphasis, he said, is "to build housing everybody wants to live in. We're visual people. . . . We judge life by what we see. And we want it to be nice. We're all material girls, you might say."
Good-looking housing is a particular goal of the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Hope VI program, which provides money to tear down old public housing and replace it. The idea, Kreager said, is "to erase the differences" that made people hate living in the projects and made neighbors hate living next door.
Take a look, for example, at photo 8. Those are townhouses in a Hope VI redevelopment in Southeast called Wheeler Creek Estates. Check the entryways, with their pedimented roofs and rounded columns. Note the window trim and smart landscaping. One model won an award of excellence this year from HUD.
The community replaces what was one of the District's worst public housing projects, Valley Green. The $54 million community of 314 new houses and apartments replaced the 312 apartments in Valley Green and 91 subsidized units at the nearby Skytower, built in the early 1960s.
Check out photo 7. The contemporary two-story house with garage is part of a mixed-income development called Woodridge Place in Brookland.
Developer-builder IDS and its federal and local financing partners, including Fannie Mae, started with a boarded-up public housing project across the street from the property. The old project, Montana Terrace, was one of the city's dankest and deadliest.
The developer converted Montana Terrace into rental apartments and two-floor stacked townhouses for sale. Then it added 37 of the for-sale single-family houses as Woodridge Place.
IDS President Andrew Botticello said all of the three- and four-bedroom houses have sold, at prices ranging from $160,000 to $225,000.
Design, he said, was critical to the project's success and to increasing property values in the surrounding area.
At Montana Terrace, IDS eliminated the flat roofs and squalid interiors. The company added pitched roofs to get away from the institutional feel. Each townhouse has its own entrance.
For the single-family houses in Woodridge, IDS decided to require brick fronts as standard. To add architectural interest, the model shown in photo 7 has a stepped-back roofline, a Palladian front window and other trim.
"We wanted to create a for-sale environment -- something that home buyers would want," Botticello said. "It doesn't matter what the price is. If people don't like it, they won't buy it."
To make the housing more affordable, Botticello said he offered some interior items as options. "But the brick fronts were not optional," because they're so important to the overall appearance, he said.
Photo 6, of new Victorian-look rowhouses in the Howard University LeDroit Park Initiative development, shows another prize-winning effort. The development has brought accolades and awards for Howard; its architect, Sorg & Associates, a Washington firm that specializes in affordable and innovative housing, and for Fannie Mae, its chief partner.
Howard bought a bunch of boarded-up townhouses that were decaying after being vacated when black middle-class families moved out of the inner city. Originally, the university had intended to use the property to expand. However, it agreed in the mid-1990s with consultants who studied the area and recommended restoring housing and offering it with subsidies to college employees.
Because of LeDroit Park's Victorian origins, architect Suman Sorg saw great potential even in the 12-foot-wide townhouses that were to be rebuilt. Other historic housing in the area gave her lots of interesting architectural details to mimic in the new units. The result: 41 new and rehabbed townhouses that sold for less than $200,000 but share some of the exterior features that Sorg used in a Georgetown project, where units sold for five to six times as much.
Now consider photo 5, the mini-mansion look.
It speaks to a particular design challenge facing a developer doing an upscale community of $800,000-plus houses near Tysons Corner. The developer was required to meet Fairfax County requirements that some of the new units be affordable.
Builder-developer Edgemoore Homes came up with an answer that delighted Paula Sampson, head of Fairfax County's Housing and Community Development agency. What looks like a mansion is actually four $125,000-plus townhouses in a quadplex. They're calling the concept "the Great House."
The idea "is really exciting for us because it fits so well into communities where the houses are substantially larger," Sampson said.
While good design "has been important to us since day one," 20 years ago when the agency started assisting homeowners, Sampson admitted that the challenges have grown as the houses in Fairfax have. Putting townhouses into neighborhoods with mansions just does not work, she said.
But Sampson is convinced that there are other answers like the Great House. "There's a myth that to be affordable a housing unit has to be cheap-looking," she said. "But that's a myth."
Fairfax's requirement for Affordable Dwelling Units in new communities, like Montgomery County's longtime requirement for Moderately Price Dwelling Units in new housing, has greatly advanced the cause, architects say. Because developers have to include units for lower-income families but want higher-income families to buy the market-price units, all the homes have to look about the same.
As architects and builders have plowed into the affordable housing field, a whole crop of design ideas has been cultivated.
HUD and others helped three affordable-housing advocates document the successes of about 80 such cases in a glossy 270-page coffee-table book, "Good Neighbors: Affordable Family Housing." (The book is available through a Web site, www.designadvisor.org, that includes a guide to starting projects.)
Local builders and nonprofits, such as Manna Inc., Habitat for Humanity and AHC Inc. in Northern Virginia and Maryland, have their own architectural models. So do local community development groups such as the New Columbia Community Land Trust (photo 1, a renovation in Dupont Circle). Local housing authorities, such as the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission (photos 2 and 3) and the Prince George's County Department of Housing and the Redevelopment Authority of Prince George's County (photo 9) work with individual builders.
No matter how they do it, though, the key is to do it well, said Deane Evans, director of architectural research at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and one of the main contributors to the design Web site.
"The difference between a well-designed project you'd want to live in and a barracks is 3 percent [of the costs]," according to one estimate, he said. "And that's why people are increasingly doing it. . . . It can be done."