Newport, R.I.—50 Washington Square, one of the oldest supportive housing communities in the country, is still on the cutting edge. Last December Church Community Housing Corp. (CCHC), a nonprofit community development corporation, finished work on a $9.8 million renovation to keep 50 Washington Square running as supportive housing.
Supportive housing typically provides recently homeless people with the stability of a permanent place to live along with a whole battery of medical, mental health, and drug-treatment services.
Most supportive-housing providers still define themselves in opposition to the system of jails, emergency rooms, and emergency homeless shelters where many chronically homeless people spend much of their lives.
But in addition to its 93 units of housing, 50 Washington Square includes a 36-bed emergency homeless shelter in the project’s basement. It’s the only homeless shelter in the county, and the people living in the shelter can move into supportive housing as apartments become available upstairs.
When a supportive housing resident loses an apartment because of breaking some of the community’s few rules, the resident is not cast out onto the sidewalk, but can return to the emergency shelter to begin the process again. CCHC calls that model a “ladder of housing” that allows residents to climb toward self-sufficiency.
Built in 1911 as a YMCA, 50 Washington Square was redeveloped by CCHC in 1988 as supportive housing. The building became the first development in Rhode Island financed with low-income housing tax credits (LIHTCs).
In last year’s renovation, CCHC spent $138,000 per unit in hard construction costs to make up for 15 years of hard service as a supportive-housing community and prepare the building for 15 more, including adding a sprinkler system required by new fire codes and repairing the stone work outside.
Without these repairs, 50 Washington Square may well have been unable to continue to operate as supportive housing, in which case private developers could have been eager to turn the property into market-rate condominiums.
Newport-based CCHC also got rid of the building’s single-room occupancy units, merging the tiny apartments into 70 large studios with their own bathrooms and kitchenettes and adding 23 one-bedroom apartments. The total number of apartments shrank from 108 to 93, but these apartments now offer residents more dignity and privacy.
To pay for the work, CCHC used the proceeds from $1 million in tax-exempt bonds issued by Rhode Island Housing (RIH). But the development couldn’t support much hard debt, especially because the income from the building’s supportive-housing apartments would have to help pay the cost of operating the emergency shelter.
So CCHC raised the rest of the project’s cost through soft financing and equity, including $4.1 million from the sale of state and federal historic tax credits and 4 percent LIHTCs to National Equity Fund, Inc. RIH also provided a package of $2.9 million in soft financing. Other foundations and agencies also provided a $1.1 million mix of soft financing, grants, and equity.
Tenants at 50 Washington Square must meet a few requirements. They must pay their rent on time, respect their fellow residents, and make some commitment to improving their lives. Drinking is allowed in the rooms, but not in the common areas. Illegal drugs are not allowed, though tenants aren’t searched as they enter and leave. Tenants who bend these few rules are encouraged to seek help, usually mental health counseling or drug treatment.
“People can fail and work their way back up,” said Steve Ostiguy, CCHC’s executive director.
It can seem like a long game of Chutes and Ladders, with long, slow climbs and quick relapses. But according to Ostiguy, 50 Washington Square has helped thousands of residents repair their lives.