An Urbanist You Should Know: Esther Robinson

Esther Robinson founded ArtHome to develop a new model of support for the arts. In order to achieve measurable impact in the lives of individual artists while maintaining a strict agnosticism about artistic quality, ArtHome develops programs that help artists (defined as anyone who self-identifies as such) to “build assets and equity through financial literacy, homeownership, self-sufficiency and the responsible use of credit.” What lessons do her unique approach to asset-building offer those of us interested in sustaining a vibrant cultural life in our cities and neighborhoods? Find out in the video below:

I met Robinson during a panel discussion on mortgage-backed securitization in February of 2009. In one of the darker moments of the financial crisis and one of the brighter early moments in the Obama presidency, she and I both attended a conference at NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy with an optimistic title, “A Crisis is a Terrible Thing to Waste: Transforming America’s Housing Policy.” With support from the Rockefeller Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation, the Furman Center had convened a heavy-hitting roster of housing policymakers who drew connections between the need to rethink housing policy and the need to reform our education, energy and transportation systems. As I listened to experts characterize these as exclusively social issues, I wondered about the conspicuous absence of spatial thinkers. The assembled panelists did not cite the work of designers in their analysis of America’s land use patterns and housing supply. And very few designers were in the room to avail themselves of the incredible resource the conference presented: a bunch of creative people, committed to social justice, putting their minds together to envision new approaches to a national problem that vexes urbanists and students of the built environment in particular.

Maybe architects, designers and planners don’t need to become experts in every new idea about how to address issues of homeownership, displacement, debt and risk. But too often, the most innovative of these ideas fail to infiltrate the architectural conversation about how to stabilize our neighborhoods and, crucially, how to maintain their intrinsic diversity. ArtHome’s approach not only develops new tools for neighborhood stabilization, but it also reminds us why diversity and creativity are worth supporting in the first place. –C.S.


Homebuyer Handbook-cover

Draft cover for the Homebuyer Handbook, part of ArtHome’s Low Income Artist Home-buying, Foreclosure Prevention and Loan Qualification Education Initiative – in partnership with the New York Mortgage Coalition. Graphic design: Glen Cummings

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.