On a January afternoon, I had the opportunity to have coffee with Joseph Espinosa, executive director of Brighton Housing Authority, and talk to him about architecture, resident services and his goal of making affordable housing providers obsolete.
It seems that so many successful, creative thinkers in the affordable housing world come from unexpected backgrounds and experiences. Espinosa is no exception. His first job was with Tryba Architects, where he worked on large-scale projects like the Wellington Webb building and learned about the thoughtfulness of design. After that, he went out on his own to design smaller projects, restaurants and single-family residences. Eventually, his desire to work on more residential architecture led him to work at Kephart, where he worked in its affordable housing studio. Driven by a love of the work and the open, supportive office culture, Espinosa stayed there for almost a decade. “I loved it there,” he said. “I thought I would retire there.”
Kephart was doing some work for the Brighton Economic Development Corp., so Espinosa applied to be on the housing authority board. Instead of accepting his application, they asked if he would instead apply for the open position of executive director. He had no intention of leaving Kephart but decided this was the one position that could change his mind. As a native of Brighton, the opportunity to work in community development and blend his passions of affordable housing and design was a dream come true.
Espinosa acts as the design architect on Brighton Housing Authority’s new developments and then turns the design over to the architect of record to complete the construction documents. We talked about the challenges of value engineering exercises in the design process; as both an owner and designer, this process could be especially difficult. Espinosa focuses on the “why” of the design and asks questions about the return, the true cost and how the design element in question is improving the quality of life of residents. He comes back to the phrase, “We’re too broke to be cheap.”
He ensures that BHA’s developments use high-quality materials that have a long lifespan. He refuses to cut costs by eliminating things that improve residents’ quality of life, like in-unit washers and dryers, balconies, storage spaces and air conditioners. Instead, he uses his deep understanding of architecture to design economic buildings. At BHA’s Windmill Ranch, Espinosa designed garden-level units (no elevators) and minimized unit types. In 96 units, there were two buildings of 36 units, and then one similar building of 24 units, so that the contractor was repeating construction of the same building.
When Espinosa started at Brighton Housing Authority in 2010, it had 16 housing units with a portfolio value of about $600,000. Now, its portfolio has grown to almost 500 units valued at over $60 million. On the topic of five- to 10-year goals for the Brighton Housing Authority, Espinosa is focusing on resident service, and tells a story about his understanding of the reactive nature of affordable housing needs.
“When I started at the housing authority, it was 11 degrees outside, and they were holding a lottery,” he said. “There was a line through the parking lot, down the sidewalk and across the street; 700 people. I remember handing them out outside, and then coming into the office and drawing a line down the middle of a wipe-off board. I wrote ‘supply’ on one side and ‘demand’ on the other. I need to increase the supply and, on the other side, I need to reduce demand. But it’s still reactive by nature. No matter how many units you build, do you think you’re going to have enough?”
In understanding the need to reduce demand, Espinosa has turned some of his focus on creating resident programs that effectively reduce demand. One program is BizLaunch, a package of services that helps potential residents in certain income ranges start their own business. The goal is that by the time these people reach the top of the housing waitlist, they don’t need BHA’s housing any more. Since its inception, the BizLaunch program has proven successful for around 50 percent of the individuals enrolled.
Another program that BHA started two years ago is the Career and College Launch. The program supports young adults from ninth grade through freshman year of college, helping them make informed decision about where they should be, considering two-year college, four-year college, trade school or entering directly into the workforce.
Espinosa’s focus is resident needs and finding collaboration with other service providers and housing authorities. He calls it the “circle of service,” describing a resident’s service needs as a circle, where some portions provided by BHA are strong, but other areas have a gap and are lacking. His goal is to create a network of collaborators who regularly get together to exchange ideas, share efforts and support each other in creating a stronger “circle of service” for residents so that, in working together, they can create more than just shelter for their residents.