Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
How a popular meme about neoliberal capitalism and fast-casual architecture owned itself.
The Providence Gamelin House opened its doors in Seattle in 2005. It was built to offer safe, affordable housing for low-income seniors in Seattle’s Rainier Vista neighborhood. To occupy any of the facility’s 77 units, residents must be ages 62 and older and earn below 50 percent of the area median income for King County in Washington. Most of them earn far below it: The average annual income for Gamelin House residents is $11,000.
For more than a decade this permanent supportive housing facility has served low-income residents of south Seattle. It’s their home. But the Providence Gamelin House only came into its own at the end of 2017, when an architectural rendering of the project was compelled into service as a meme. Specifically, as a housing meme, which is its own bucket for signifiers of our slide into late capitalism.
The meme surfaced wherever memes surface and spread however memes spread—idk. Eventually it found its way to the desk of Timothy Zaricznyj, director of housing for Providence Supportive Housing, the person who now oversees this alleged gentrification nightmare. (In fact, he manages 16 affordable-housing developments in Washington, Oregon, and California.) Zaricznyj was not exactly tickled. “They chose the wrong project, if they want to slam developers,” he says.
He’s right: The meme was a total self-own by whoever came up with it. (Although not as sick of a self-own as being born during the Carter administration and writing a meme explainer.) The fact that this meme depicts modest affordable housing—not penny-pinching, developer-driven Fast-Casual architecture—even inspired a meta-meme backlash.
This is my favorite meme because I get the point but also the photo is of affordable public housing lmao pic.twitter.com/tgFxT3lcqt— Josh Kuh 🌹 (@JoshKuh44) October 24, 2017
Zaricznyj says that he gets the point, too. The original meme is a vague critique of “architecture by bean-counters” (of which Seattle does not lack for examples) and developers’ thirst for transitional neighborhoods. The Gamelin House was the work of Michael Fancher, an architect who designed affordable housing across the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s and ‘90s. But don’t blame Fancher: Affordable housing is subject to severe restrictions and even worse funding shortfalls.
Rainier Vista was never designated an arts district. But between 1999 and 2010, the area was subject to a redevelopment master plan to remake it as a mixed-income community. The city spent $240 million on the effort, including a $35 million Hope VI Revitalization grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. These were funds assigned to demolish distressed public housing and build something better in its place.
“The image that you see in this meme is obviously a tiny fraction of a master site development that extends blocks in every direction. Rainier Vista has its own vernacular. Part of that extends to its own color palette,” Zaricznyj says. In fact, when the Seattle Housing Authority recently repainted the Gamelin House, the powers that be left the color palette as is. “The final form of that development, right down to the color, was imposed by the master site.”
The Providence Gamelin House was built using funds from another HUD program, Section 202, which provides capital for building affordable housing for the elderly. Yet Section 202 added another regulatory wrinkle: Projects developed with these funds were subject to caps not just on dollars spent per square foot, but on the amount of common area built altogether—restrictions meant to drive development costs way down.
As even meme-lords now realize, federal-ugly Gamelin House is a problem most cities should be lucky to have. That’s not to say the HUD programs that gave rise to affordable housing in Rainier Vista worked out everywhere. Police dragged people out of their homes in Chicago’s Cabrini–Green projects under the authority of Hope VI. (Congress stopped funding the program in 2010.) Section 202, the program that builds housing for the elderly, may see its funding slashed by 10 percent or more under budget cuts proposed by the Trump administration.
So, lessons learned:
Is a e s t h e t i c always lost in affordable or permanent supportive housing? Handsome examples of low-income housing can be found in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. For sure, cheap corporate architecture is everywhere. You, an intellectual, might point out that lifting residential zoning restrictions would result in better design and more affordable housing.
Can HUD still fund affordabois like Gamelin House? Not if the Trump administration’s plan for tax reform passes Congress, since it could diminish the power of Low Income Housing Tax Credits and (at least in the House version) wipe out tax-exempt private activity bonds—both instruments that are crucial to building new affordable housing. Even if the worst doesn’t come to pass, sequestration has already decimated housing aid. The market can’t build deeply affordable housing without public subsidy.
Should I refrain from ever, ever writing about memes again? Absolutely—💯.