Ryan Chiao, Senior Photographer

Students at the Yale School of Architecture are currently designing an accessory dwelling unit — a housing alternative on an existing plot of property — to house a homeless community member. 

All first-year architecture students must take “Building Project I” as part of the Jim Vlock First Year Building Project, which usually builds a dwelling in an “underprivileged neighborhood” every year. This year, the project involves a partnership with Columbus House, a New Haven homeless shelter that also supports those grappling with disability and addiction. Over the past year, architecture students have collaborated with Columbus House staff and clients to discuss potential building sites, styles and any special considerations that must be made during the building process.

Once Architecture School students complete the design and construction process of the dwelling, Columbus House administrators will manage the unit and rent it out to a homeless person at a significantly lower rental rate. With the passage of the Public Act 21-29, also known as the HB 6107, in 2021, Connecticut legalized accessory apartments, introduced new municipal guidelines and became the first state to maintain that all zoning regulations must reflect the specific requirement of “affirmatively further[ing] fair housing.”

“Before I left [for] Puerto Rico, I [saw many] homeless people downtown sleeping on the benches, and I came back and [there’s] less people there,” said Daniella DeJesus, a 34-year-old homeless woman who attended the meeting. “There [are] more programs out there that are helping, especially Columbus House.”

Building Project managers Brandon Lim ARC ’24 and Silas Newman ARC ’24 described the collaborative nature of the project, as student groups must work with each other and Columbus House to plan a dwelling. According to the pair, seven groups of students in the course each design a plan for an accessory dwelling unit, or ADU. Once the seven ADU designs are proposed, Columbus House members will help students choose one dwelling design that will ultimately be built. 

The project itself follows a research phase, in which the student groups conducted surveys, interviews and meetings with Columbus House to better understand the communities their work would impact. Lim’s project group was paired to speak with Columbus House CEO Margaret Middleton, who provided important insights into homelessness in New Haven, while others interviewed homeless people themselves.

“A lot of the process is studying the place where we’re building and the people that we’re building for,” Newman said. “A big part of the process has been interviews … getting a full understanding of the site, it’s really helpful to talk to people.”

Last month, several students visited Columbus House to gain input from people living there, asking residents about the physical features and policies they would like to see included in the accessory dwelling unit system. 

Columbus House and its partnership programs “are getting people off the streets and into somewhere warm,” DeJesus said. “They’re trying to build a house for us, for someone.”

A survivor of attempted suicide who grapples with addiction and mental health issues, DeJesus emphasized that recent amps in programming for the homeless have affected change within the most vulnerable populations of New Haven in terms of both immediate housing and emotional support — saving lives and offering critical assistance during the “colder months.” She cited warming centers, counseling programs and the provision of lifestyle resources such as “beauty bags” and feminine products, explaining that the new project of constructing accessory dwelling units will contribute to this larger goal of connecting the homeless to professional help, of “get[ting] people the help [they] need.” 

According to Desegregate CT, a coalition of nonprofits and grassroots organizations that advocates for housing accessibility and land sustainability, accessory dwelling units and apartments are usually small residential spaces for independent living. ADUs also diversify residential areas that would normally be inaccessible to individual renters by increasing affordability. Throughout its run, the Building Project has aimed to examine cultural aspects to better foster a “sense of ownership” for new residents of its projects, including featuring larger windows and potentially outdoor garages for convenience purposes.

Among the core values for accessory dwelling units emphasized at the meeting are affordability and stability, with tenants paying no more than 30 percent of their gross income. Newman mentioned that privacy, security and “a sense of home” were important factors that homeless people brought up to students during their research phase.

Currently, accessory apartments in New Haven cannot be less than 400 square feet in size, and may not exceed 35 percent in floor area of the primary dwelling unit. Newman and Lim estimated that this year’s ADU will likely house one to two people and that the unit will be built as “a house in a backyard.” Most of the design schemes they have seen have involved a bedroom, living and dining space, bathroom and outdoor space. 

Because ADUs are built on existing property, they make plots of housing more accessible for a larger number of people. According to Newman, first years additionally researched affordable housing policy in New Haven, which informed them as they considered the impact of building ADUs on the city.

“I think we’ve been pushed in the direction of ADUs because, one, the budget restraints for this year, but also — to Silas’ point — increasing affordable housing in New Haven and increasing the density,” Lim said. “Because [ADUs] don’t require their own property, they can sit on existing property lines. So, you can just add more people on a single plot of land without having to buy more property.”

Students plan to build the ADU at 164 Plymouth St.

Megan Vaz is the former city desk editor. She previously covered Yale-New Haven relations and Yale unions, additionally serving as an audience desk staffer.
Brian Zhang is Arts editor of the Yale Daily News and the third-year class president at Yale. Previously, he covered student life for the University desk. His writing can also be found in Insider Magazine, The Sacramento Bee, BrainPOP, New York Family and uInterview. Follow @briansnotebook on Instagram for more!