Dignity by Design: How Elevating Affordable Housing Brings Equity to Underserved Tenants and Neighborhoods

Landscaping and community garden at CAMBA Gardens I and II

What is Dignity by Design?

Dignity by design is the principle that what we build and how we build it has a direct effect on people’s health and well-being. The spaces where we live, work, and socialize have a profound impact on our ability to lead healthy, fulfilling, and productive lives. The built environment that surrounds us, particularly in urban areas, can influence families’ trajectories, the vibrancy of neighborhoods, and the legacy of communities.

Ultimately, dignity by design is about equity. There has been a persistent lack of investment in green spaces, art, and quality affordable housing in low-income communities. The correlation between urban tree cover and income is well-known to favor wealthier neighborhoods: higher-income communities enjoy more parks, green space, and walking trails; lower-income neighborhoods lack outdoor recreation opportunities, gardens, and parks. This disparity extends to art as well. From museums and galleries to outdoor murals and sculptures, art and the many benefits it provides has historically been concentrated in higher-income areas. The development of formulaic, impersonal affordable housing is another mark of disinvestment in underserved communities. CAMBA Housing Ventures understands these are not superfluous expenses but essential investments for our tenants, neighborhoods, and communities.

Dignity by design extends beyond mental well-being and into physical health. It is now widely accepted that efforts to improve one’s health are not limited to medical care, but also include physical environment, access to social and economic opportunities, and other factors. Our homes and neighborhoods are the most influential physical environments and therefore play a critical role in our health.

It is the quality of the tenant’s experience in their home: feeling valued and seeing that value reflected back to them where they live. A worthy place to call home instills a sense of worthiness in ourselves.

CHV’s Approach

As a mission-driven nonprofit affordable and supportive housing developer, CAMBA Housing Ventures employs dignity by design to help transition our tenants from survival to stability and success. We view each new development as an opportunity to build and design innovative supportive housing to create thriving communities. CHV’s developments exemplify design excellence, meaning they are built to the highest standards, using quality and environmentally-friendly materials that are sourced for specific projects. This ensures each building is beautiful, contextual, and stands the test of time.  

In addition to the tenant’s experience in their home, CHV’s approach to dignity by design focuses on the surrounding neighborhood and community. Intentional choices are made throughout the lifecycle of a development and the impact it will have on a neighborhood: from design to completion through operations. Community engagement is conducted to ensure each building is a contextual asset and supports existing community strengths. CHV builds amenity-rich housing to promote health and well-being and makes strong investments in landscape architecture due to the critical connection between nature and mental health. Curated local art is displayed throughout each development to beautify the spaces, foster cultural connections, spark creativity and inspiration, and improve health and well-being.

The combination of thoughtful architecture, access to nature, and artwork for visual appeal work together to elevate the standard for developing affordable and supportive housing.

Mission-Driven Architecture

Before trees can be planted or art hung on the walls, the design of a development needs to incorporate dignity by design principles. For CAMBA Housing Ventures, this means selecting architects that share our commitment to bringing equity to underserved communities. From the very first design meeting, we begin discussing how the development will improve our tenant’s health and well-being, how it will improve the streetscape of the neighborhood, and what the tenant’s experience will be like living in their unit. Within the buildings, this means thoughtful layouts for community spaces, outdoor recreation spaces, stairwell windows to promote walking, durable finishes, and sustainable materials. Integrating community space, access to nature, and artwork is an intentional process that begins with a thorough understanding of how tenants will use the building every day. Because they will be spending the most time in their own units, we carefully consider details to improve our tenants’ experience. Details like luxury vinyl floors, quartz or granite countertops, large windows for ample natural light, high ceilings, generous storage, ENERGY STAR ceiling fans and appliances, tile backsplashes, flush mounted medicine cabinets, black out shades color-coordinated with the building’s exterior, and more, work together to improve our tenants’ living experience. Outside the building, design choices focus on activating the entire neighborhood with features like community gardens, landscaped pathways, perimeter lights, glass lobbies to put eyes on the street, sidewalks with landscaping, a security presence, and more. These design choices improve the neighborhood by beautifying the block and greening the community.

CHV is committed to listening to the community to ensure our buildings fit their needs. Our architects observe the neighborhood so the development will be contextual and become an asset of the community. Decisions such as the proximity to healthcare services, number of units, building height, footprint and orientation, not only have financial implications but lifestyle ones too.

Sustainability is also a major focus, so we are mindful of the environmental impacts buildings create. CHV creates developments focused on reducing our impact on the environment and increasing the health of our residents and communities. We have achieved and continually work toward the highest energy-efficiency and sustainable development industry certifications. Our housing uses energy-efficient and renewable building systems, such as solar energy, high-performance building envelopes for optimal insulation/climate control, water conservation methods, drought tolerant landscaped outdoor spaces, nontoxic, durable finishes, healthy indoor-air quality, gardens for hyper-local food production, and more to ensure healthy and sustainable living.

Nature for Nurture

Our commitment to beautifully landscaped outdoor spaces is a commitment to the well-being of our tenants, and the overall enhancement of the site. Our buildings incorporate landscaped common spaces and rooftop terraces, as well as community gardens. There is extensive research on the benefits of greenery in urban areas: trees lining streets increasing property values, vegetation decreasing incidents of crime, reductions in obesity as a result of proximity to parks, and improved mental health due to access to nature.

Air pollution has long been a concern in urban areas and trees are a commonsense solution to improve air quality. A study from Portland State University measured nitrogen dioxide levels associated with traffic and other sources of air pollution in different areas across Portland. They placed 144 sensors in different neighborhoods and found the amount of tree cover had a significant impact on the levels of nitrogen dioxide in an area and the respiratory health of the residents. The study concluded that thanks to the city’s existing tree canopy: children aged 4-12 avoided missing 7,380 school days due to asthma attacks, people of all ages avoided 54 asthma-related emergency room visits, there were 46 fewer hospital stays for people older than 65 because of respiratory illness, and all together the health benefits equaled $6.6 million in savings.

Many of the health benefits offered by green spaces stem from more opportunities to be active. Being outside supports an active and healthy lifestyle, which can increase life expectancy, improve sleep quality, and reduce cancer risk. Outdoor environments are more enticing for physical activity and increase motivation for exercise, thereby increasing fitness. Studies also show that being outside in nature is relaxing, reducing our stress, cortisol levels, muscle tension and heart rates — all of which are risk factors for cardiovascular disease. People are significantly more likely to report good health and well-being if they spend 120 minutes a week in nature.

The mental health benefits of nature are easy to understand by simply stepping outside for fresh air. Adding trees, gardens, and other landscaped areas increases this sense of well-being. Thoughtfully planned gathering areas contribute to recreation and foster community by providing space for fulfilling social activities. COVID-19 put a spotlight on the negative effects of social isolation on mental health, but it was a widespread problem before the pandemic. Designated recreation areas where friends and family can come together are key to reducing isolation, as well as the physical and mental health ailments associated with loneliness or lack of community. The CDC reports that adults aged 50 and older that are socially isolated have a 50% increased risk of dementia, a 29% increased risk of heart disease, a 32% increased risk of stroke, and higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide. These increased rates of premature death due to loneliness rival those of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity. The USDA’s Forest Service found city neighborhoods that received tree plantings or other “cleaning and greening” initiatives resulted in more positive attitudes between neighbors, which often results in better relationships.

Artwork with Purpose

Most people do not associate beautiful design and aesthetics with affordable housing. CAMBA Housing Ventures is working to change that inequity. Original, curated art is displayed throughout our developments to ensure tenants feel proud of the place they call home. The pieces are selected for aesthetic value, community connection, and support of local artists.

The cultural investment in artwork in low-income communities should no longer be thought of as an expense, rather a necessity to bring parity to underserved communities. The benefits of access to art for tenants and the community underscores the necessity of incorporating artwork to improve people’s well-being. A study by the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the arts are an essential tool to improve wellness. A Harvard University synopsis of the WHO report states, “The arts involve the mind and body through aesthetic engagement, imaginary thinking, sensory activation, emotion evocation, and cognitive stimulation, leading to real psychological, physiological, social, and/or behavioral health outcomes.” In other words, access to visual art has the power to improve one’s mental and physical health, overall well-being and quality of life.

A poignant report commissioned by the Knight Foundation and conducted by the Urban Institute found those with access to arts and cultural amenities are more deeply attached to their communities, but equitable access continues to be challenging for communities of color. The authors surveyed 11,000 people in 26 metro areas across America. They found people in low-income or minority households reported lower levels of access to arts and cultural activities than higher-income or white residents. Survey respondents said arts and cultural activities were the fourth most difficult urban amenity to access nationally, after affordable housing, public transit, and job opportunities. Underscoring the inequity that lack of access produces, the report found, across demographic groups, people who reported easy access to art and cultural amenities in their neighborhoods were more satisfied with their city, identified with the local lifestyle, and invested more time and resources into their communities.

CHV’s Commitment

Our designs are elevating the institutional architecture commonly associated with affordable housing. Every detail is chosen to convey to our tenants they are worthy of living in a beautiful space designed to meet their needs and promote respect. Elevated and sustainable architecture combined with access to nature and artwork brings dignity by design to our affordable and supportive housing for health, well-being, and cultural connections. Entire communities are uplifted through these principles thanks to the tangible investment of a new and beautiful neighborhood asset. Dignity by design helps our tenants go from survival to stability and success.