How We Live, from Top to Bottom
While celebrating design excellence in houses, we can't forget that millions of the poorest Americans live far beyond the reach of architecture.
Welcome to the April issue and the annual publication of Record Houses, a long tradition at the magazine. While not extending all the way back to our beginnings 125 years ago, RECORD has published special features on residential design for most of its history, long before the first issue of Record Houses came out in 1956. As early as 1910, the magazine began creating special sections on country houses and seaside cottages.
This year, each of the eight winning houses has an especially strong connection to its surroundings, whether it is a cedar-clad cabin perched in a forest overlooking a lake in Nova Scotia or a suburban New York residence that blurs the boundaries between architecture and landscape using stone walls that are set into its craggy site. The urban dwellings in the pages ahead are striking not only for their unusual plans—a multilevel Tokyo house is accessed only by a snaking perimeter ramp—but for the sensitive scale with which they respond to their neighborhoods.
Yet we get used to the fact that, each year, some readers complain about the size and luxury of many of the houses that we publish. Yes, we select beautiful designs that explore innovative ideas, but take note: this time, the stunning houses in the pages ahead are a little more modest in scale, down to a 1,000-square-foot retreat in the high desert plains of Arizona. And the architect of the largest house we feature masterfully broke down her client’s program to create urbane volumes that fit quietly onto a city street in Chicago. I hope you find this year’s choice of Record Houses intriguing and inspiring.
At the same time, we are aware that many Americans don’t have a secure roof over their heads. They are not only the chronically homeless—though many are intermittently homeless—they are those who live below the poverty line yet outside the safety net of either public housing or federally funded housing vouchers. Instead, they are trapped in the private market of often substandard rentals, which can eat up an enormous chunk of their meager monthly incomes, far more than the 30 percent guidelines for subsidized programs. They number in the millions and are the majority of America’s poorest citizens, but they are largely invisible and powerless. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, only one in four low-income renter households receive vouchers, because of funding limitations, and the number of those unassisted households with “worst case” housing needs rose by more than 30 percent between 2007 and 2013.
A profoundly disturbing account of such households is Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, a new book by Harvard social scientist Matthew Desmond. Desmond spent a year closely following eight families in Milwaukee, who bounced in and out of squalid apartments and a trailer park, evicted when they failed to make the rent. He found the subjects of his extensive research—both the tenants and landlords—by moving into their neighborhoods and befriending them, with his notebook in hand.
There is nothing you would call architecture in Evicted unless you count the majestic Neoclassical Milwaukee County Courthouse, where local evictions are adjudicated. Desmond’s subjects tended to live in—and be kicked out of—places with sagging porches, broken or boarded-up windows, blocked plumbing, serendipitous heat and hot water, walls with creeping mold and scurrying roaches. According to the author, landlords often rented units with code violations to desperate families, with the stated intention to fix them—though it frequently turned out to be easier to find cause to evict rather than repair. Historically, rents in major cities have been staggeringly high in the worst neighborhoods—even today, rents for the poorest units are often not far below the median for the entire market.
Thirty per cent of all those evicted in Milwaukee were women from African-American neighborhoods, Desmond found. In most cases, of course, they had children who were thrown out with them. Desmond, who was named a MacArthur fellow last year, is a keen observer and a beautiful writer. Harrowing and heartbreaking, his book has tragedy on every page. He is also clear-eyed and surprisingly nonjudgmental— about both those evicted and their landlords. His central thesis: such costly housing only perpetuates the downward cycle of poverty. His solution: universal housing vouchers for all households below a certain income level. He doesn’t advocate more public housing. “We can’t build our way out,” he writes. So this is not a book aimed at architects and urbanists. It is a book for everyone.