Priyanka Sen’s first exposure to the convoluted world of affordable housing came when she worked for Commonwealth Corps in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood from 2009-2010.
At the time, she was helping people with HIV and AIDS navigate Boston’s housing system and found it hard to understand, even for people in the know.
It left her with one thought: “There’s just got to be a better, more efficient way of doing this,” says Sen.
Years later, after attending the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP), and then teaching there as well, she decided to revisit the idea.
“I thought, now I’m sort of ready to use my skill set in a different way and see if I can translate some of the things I know how to do as an architect into a more community-driven project,” she says.
She proposed making a graphic booklet to break down the process, which was the start of VOUCHED: A Roadmap to Understanding Affordable Housing in Cincinnati.
“The whole point was to make something really accessible and graphic, so that it didn’t necessarily scare people away from wanting to learn more about it, or to learn the process,” she says.
Sen applied for a grant through People’s Liberty, got it, and the project took off.
She started with what she calls a “participatory design process,” which included getting input from people who have either gone through the Section 8 process or who plan to in the near future.
“So it’s not just something that I’m doing in a hole,” she explains.
The first few months of the six-month grant were about researching and connecting with a variety of organizations in the city that work with affordable housing, like shelters, people who provide project subsidies, and places that work with legal issues, like the Ohio Justice and Policy Center.
“[I was] just really trying to understand the spectrum of what the housing situation is in Cincinnati, specifically,” Sen says.
Following that, Sen worked on the design and content of the book, and met with the organizations initially involved with the process, along with some new ones who would hopefully want to distribute the book as a resource.
She held several workshops, including one at People’s Liberty and two at Community Matters in Lower Price Hill — and credits the people there for shaping the final content.
People on Section 8 discussed what information would have been helpful before going through the process, red tape issues that held them back, and organizations that helped along the way.
The book is comprised of three major sections: Before You Apply, The Application, and Know Your Rights.
“It’s quite a lot of information,” Sen says. “My hope was to get as much information into as little amount of space.”
It was challenging, she admits, but she’s happy with the final result and hopes that it will benefit both individuals and organizations across Cincinnati.
“This information, it’s, as I say in air quotes ‘available’ but it’s challenging to get all of this information in one spot that makes sense,” she says. “The intent is not to overwhelm anyone with what it is, but to provide them with the ability to have as much information in one place as possible.”
Even after all of her background work, she still needed to meet with organizations to help clarify the information and ensure its accuracy.
The printed copy will be released during a launch party on November 28 at People’s Liberty, from 6–8 p.m. Following that, Sen hopes to continue work on her website, which will serve as a place for people to search for updated information and resources.
Part of the launch — which is free and open to the public — will include a housing fair with eight different organizations that will give additional information about affordable housing.
“I think the other thing that’s been important to me in this project is to not necessarily talk about what we always talk about with affordable housing — which is that there’s not enough of it, it’s really convoluted and tricky,” she says. “I want to shed light differently on how we talk about this and how people can make it more accessible as a process.”
“My hope,” she continues, “is that it now becomes something that’s open and accessible and people feel less scared about that process because they have a resource now that at least, in some ways, helps guide them through some of the challenges.”
Her old boss at Commonwealth Corps saw the project and is impressed that, nearly 10 years later, Sen turned her dreams into reality.
“It’s really interesting,” she says, “because this project has brought me around full-circle in a way that I don’t think I ever could have imagined.”
To register for the free launch of VOUCHED and the housing fair at People’s Liberty on Nov. 28 from 6–8 p.m., click here. People’s Liberty is located on the second floor of 1805 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202.