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New Housing Concept Could Be Headed to Near East Side

Brent Warren Brent Warren New Housing Concept Could Be Headed to Near East SideBetterhood concept— Rendering via Jonathan Barnes Architecture and Design.
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Local architect Jonathan Barnes has spent much of the last year working on a housing concept that he thinks may be unique in the country. And with a site selected on the Near East Side to build a prototype, he is hopeful that his vision will come to fruition soon.

Barnes formed a nonprofit organization, Betterhood, to implement the idea, which he describes as “entrepreneurial housing.” The concept calls for townhouse-style infill development, but with some important twists.

“It’s a hybrid-ownership housing product, with an owner’s unit and rental units, something that’s already familiar in urban areas,” Barnes said, citing the traditional townhouse or brownstone model, in which an owner lives on the first floor while renting out the basement and upper floors. “That model has inherent issues, though, like inefficient circulation and inconvenient access.”

“This resolves that in a different way; ownership is vertical and access is horizontal,” he said, meaning that access to the owner’s unit would be at ground level, while the rental units would all be above, served by a common second floor corridor. “That creates a community among the renters, which is important if they’re in separate townhouses.”

The design is modular, so it can be scaled up or down to fit into a particular site. It’s also flexible – the version featured on the Betterhood website shows the townhouse building attached to an adjacent apartment building.

The concept’s second major twist is that owners would be required to live in the building.

“This design is intended to operate in concert with a social entrepreneurship program to teach qualified neighborhood residents the fundamentals of apartment renting,” said Barnes. That program, which would include an apprenticeship element, would be operated by the Betterhood organization.

“It became apparent to us that this had some real potential to address the issue of absentee landlords in economically challenged neighborhoods,” he added. “Creating landlords from residents of those neighborhoods; that’s an opportunity to solve the problem from the inside out…you end up with landlords who are members of the community, who have a vested interest in keeping the housing well-maintained and available.”

A site for the prototype has been identified, although there is still some work to be done before it can be acquired. Apart from lining up financing, Betterhood is also still looking for the right partners to handle the development and property management sides of the project. The property manager would handle leasing and maintenance of the rental units until they are handed off to a resident-owner.

Barnes said that he has also spoken to potential partners in Detroit about bring the idea to that city, but those talks are still in the early stages.

Despite the hurdles that remain – and the time needed to set up a nonprofit organization and to find partners to work with – Barnes remains bullish on the idea and hopeful that it can offer a fresh approach to building housing in struggling neighborhoods.

“This is not like the other stuff we do (as architects), where the developer buys a property, raises funds, then hires us,” he said. “It’s all driven by money and markets, basically… but this is such a different kind of project.”

For more information, see www.betterhoodusa.org.

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