The Rio Grand

City Limits | March 1992

By Michele Herman

Ellen Baxter is working with tenants to create model housing for the homeless.

When you walk into the Rio, a new permanent residence for formerly homeless people in Upper Manhattan, one of the first details that strikes the eye is the lighting. There are no humming fluorescents or dim, standard-issue

ceiling fixtures or those universal symbols of squalor – naked lightbulbs dangling from a cord. Instead, the Rio’s hallways are lined with sconces of a soft, marbleized glass, each one casting a slightly different incandescent
hue on the clean white walls.

From the sconces on down to the real hardwood floors, the solid oak furniture in the apartments and the
sunny roof deck opposite the staff offices, it’s clear that the Rio differs significantly from most housing for the
homeless: it was designed not by a faceless bureaucracy for a “population,” but by thoughtful people for people.

Effective Advocacy

But the success of the Rio involves much more than a caring approach to the physical details of the buildings. It’s the result of the unique cooperation between the tenants themselves and one particular person named Ellen Baxter. A small, self-effacing woman with a long blonde braid and the demeanor of a reserved college student, Baxter is actually one of the city’s most dogged and effective advocates for homeless people. Under the aegis of the Committee for the Heights/Inwood Homeless and the Broadway Housing Development Fund, she has put together a total of five supported residences in Washington Heights in less than a decade. Housing experts unfailingly point to Baxter’s buildings as some of the best models around.

“Social services are a growing industry these days, and you have to look at people’s motivations,” says Harriet Cohen, a senor policy analyst for Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger. “Hers comes from the best
place. She’s extremely dedicated and has a real connection to these folks.”

Baxter’s success at creating permanent housing stems from what is, in essence, a set of very simple unspoken tenets: all people deserve to be treated with respect; adults should not be patronized; people are far more likely to thrive in pleasant, supportive surroundings; people need community but they need to be able to create it for themselves.

These ideas are hardly revolutionary – they sound more like a combination of common sense and basic decency. What sets Baxter apart is her ability to put these ideas into practice, to fight the dragons of bureaucratic insensitivity and inanity without burning out or turning cynical. “It takes a kind of drive and tenacity most nonprofit people don’t have.” says one-time colleague Kim Hopper, now a research scientist at the Nathan Klein Research Center in Westchester. “She’s actually doing what we armchair academics are writing and shouting about.”

Run Partly By Tenants

Each of Baxter’s buildings is a minor miracle of humaneness. The Rio, a renovated Art Deco building with 75 studios and seven two-bedroom units, is by far the most luxurious of the buildings, which also include the
Heights, the Stella, the Abraham and the Bliebtreu. But all of them are cheerful, clean, self-contained communities. What’s more, they are smoothly run in large part by the tenants themselves. Many of them are elderly, mentally ill or recovering addicts and haven’t been in a position of responsibility for years, or ever.

“Everybody has their own style,” says Ann Teicher, deputy director of the Mayor’s Office on Homelessness and SRO Housing. She says Baxter “trusts the people and lets them know she trusts them.” Baxter was able to
create these five mini-communities without spending much money. The Rio was gut-renovated at a cost of about $38,000 per unit (as opposed to the annual cost of $85,000 per bed in a shelter). The renovation was completed in nine months, two months ahead of schedule, with no contractor overruns.

“To me it’s just great,” says Rio tenant Phyllis DeLorenzo, who is beginning nursing school and in the latter stages of an alcohol treatment program. She also volunteers for the midnight security shift in  the building on Friday nights. “It’s very clean, everything is brand new, there’s a lot of security and a lot of support from the staff, and the tenants get along very well.”

To make the buildings viable, Baxter had to create complex and ingenious coalitions of funders and social service providers-as many as 30 nonprofit groups per building. For the Rio, Baxter put together the most sophisticated funding yet, primarily through the Single Room Occupancy (SRO) loan program at the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD).

As a result, Baxter was able to correct the one nagging flaw of her previous buildings: shared baths and kitchens. The Rio’s apartments all have private baths and efficiency kitchens, features generally – and wrongly – considered a luxury in such housing. “It’s wiser for the city to promote studio apartments rather than the SRO model,” says Baxter. “In the other building, the tolerance level needed [for sharing facilities] is rough on anybody. It’s hard to live with for a short time, let alone year after year.” She also insisted on outdoor roof space and the seven two-bedroom units, so that families and singles can live together, as they would anywhere else.

Baxter’s success has much to do with her insistence on these basic  amenities. But it also has something to do with her eye for smaller details, or at least the attitude that underlies it. The sconces were important to her for the message they sent to the tenants: you deserve to live in a clean, well-lighted place. Before she could get them, she had to win over the housing department, which initially wanted to see standard fixtures, the cheapest possible. “They said, ‘People will remove them, they’ll steal them.’ They said, ‘Paint the walls brown,”‘ she recalls. But Baxter stood her ground until the housing department agreed.

As Rio tenant Philip Gray puts it, “Just because you’re homeless doesn’t mean you don’t have values. Once you become homeless it’s very hard to become un-homeless. “When you’re finally given the chance for a place to live, he says, “you’re very appreciative. You’re grateful.” Vandalism has never been an issue at any of the buildings.

At the five buildings, prospective tenants do undergo a rigorous screening process before they move in, but its aim is somewhat unusual. Baxter and the tenants in the buildings willingly accept people with serious mental and emotional problems and elderly people with health problems as long as they can assume the responsibility of a lease. This sets them apart from many other groups that look for only the most desirable, trouble-free tenants. But not everyone can move in. “We’re looking to screen out people with active substance abuse problems,” says Baxter. “They make lousy tenants and lousy neighbors.”

Baxter expects both more and less of the tenants than many other people who manage buildings. On the one hand, she is laissez-faire; she expects tenants to be considerate neighbors and pay the rent, and as long as they fulfill these basic requirements she leaves them alone.

But at the same time, the buildings are set up with the expectation that the tenants will play an extremely active role in running them. This expectation, more than any of the other features, is what makes Baxter’s buildings stand out. “Ellen really believes in people’s ability to take control of their own lives,” says Teicher.

For instance, residents screen prospective tenants before the staff does and are given veto power. As with most policies at the buildings, this is done not only as a way to involve tenants in their surroundings, but because they tend to be good at it.

Determining Honesty

“They’re wiser than we are in determining honesty,” says Baxter. Adds Michael Velazquez, an administrative assistant at the Rio who was homeless and then lived at the Heights, “If they tell me I’m scared but I’m gonna do it, that’s all I want to hear. When they reveal their drug history I believe them more than ones who know too much.”

Each of the buildings offer on-premises social services provided by Columbia University Community Services. And there is also a variety of discussion groups, AA meetings, vocational seminars, movie nights, bingo and cook-outs – many sponsored and led by tenants.

The Committee for Heights/Inwood  Homeless and Columbia University both have staff, including  superintendents, on hand during business hours. But on weekends and evenings – the toughest times to run a
building – the properties are staffed entirely by tenants, who run the security desk, dealing with all issues and emergencies that arise.

“We have a lot of tenants who know what to do about a toilet overflowing, know how to resolve disputes, deal with emergencies,” says Baxter with characteristic nonchalance – as if every apartment building in New York  functioned so smoothly.

© 2020 Broadway Housing Communites, Inc.