Our Renters’ Stories

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Indiana Housing Authority’s Portraits of the Human Spirit

Each subsequent presidential administration brings a new and differing set of priorities. With the current one clearly focused on lowering taxes, building infrastructure, fighting terrorism and everything having to do with immigration, affordable housing is not likely to reach the top of the to-do list. Tax credits and housing subsidies are always vulnerable targets, so thoughtful leaders in the field are looking for ways to make the point that what is actually at the center of the industry is not facts and figures, but people.

“In this industry, we all struggle to tell our story,” states Brad Meadows, marketing and communications director of the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority (IHCDA). “We’re into numbers.

We can talk from a bureaucratic standpoint, give all the facts and figures, and explain that each dollar of tax credits will yield so much investment and equity benefit. But what we really need to do is show how housing intersects with jobs, health, roads, business, education and community development. How do we show the human element? How do we show that these are real people, representative of the state as a whole? How do we get you to relate it to yourself and your family?”

Meadows’ own organization has figured out one way to do this, with a moving visual and audio exhibition entitled, “Portraits of the Human Spirit: A Sense of Place.”

There is a long and proud history of social documentary photojournalism in the United States. In 1890, pioneering journalist and reformer Jacob Riis, himself a Danish immigrant, published his landmark book, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, which graphically showed through photographs and text the appalling living conditions of the city’s working poor. It aroused public awareness as no dry, factual report had and led to demands for bettering those conditions. Riis followed it up two years later with Children of the Poor, another searing social document in book form.

During the Great Depression, Rexford Tugwell, head of the U.S. Farm Security Administration’s Federal Emergency Relief Administration, enlisted some of the nation’s most accomplished documentary photographers – including Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Carl Mydans, Gordon Parks and Arthur Rothstein – to capture the devastating hardships natural disaster and economic collapse were wreaking on individual citizens. The aim, according to FSA Information Division’s director Roy Stryker, was “introducing America to Americans.” What the FSA photographs shared with Riis’s earlier series was their ability to portray the poignant and ineffable dignity, sensitivity and even beauty of their subjects. Those images, raised to the level of art, are among the most celebrated in American photography and became the lasting visual heritage of that era.

A tradition in reverse
Early last year, Jacob “Jake” Sipe, IHCDA’s executive director, came up with an idea to follow that documentary photography tradition, but with the opposite purpose: to show not deplorable living conditions, but the profound positive effect good quality affordable housing can have on people’s lives. What the project became, according to Meadows, was “an exercise in empathy and a powerful display that gets the attention of everyone, particularly legislators.”

IHCDA’s mission “is to help communities build upon their assets to create places with ready access to opportunities, goods and services. We also promote, finance, and support a broad range of housing solutions, from temporary shelters to homeownership. . . The activities that we finance help families become more stable, put down roots and climb the economic ladder. In turn, communities grow and prosper, broadening their tax base, creating new jobs and maximizing local resources.”

“Every year, the Indiana Affordable Housing Council (IAHC) holds a conference,” says Sipe, “and in 2016 we wanted to find a way to celebrate the 30-year anniversary of Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC).” In that time, the program has helped develop and preserve more than 50,000 affordable housing units in the state and generated an estimated $2.22 billion in local income and $5.64 billion in tax revenue.

“And I was also thinking, ‘Who can we get as a keynote speaker who can really get the point across that what we do is not ultimately about buildings, but about individual people?’

“I came across a series of portraits done of Medal of Honor recipients. What was interesting was that it was the first time I had seen these brave men photographed out of uniform and without their medals. It made you realize that these were average, everyday people who had done extraordinary things and it made them totally relatable. It turned out the photographer was a native Indianan named Tom Casalini, who still lives in the state. He published a book of those photographs entitled Ordinary Heroes. And I found out he’d also done a series of ‘Indiana Artists’ and ‘Famous Hoosiers.’ His pictures were breathtaking, and I decided I had to get in touch with this guy.”

Through intermediaries, Sipe contacted Casalini, who agreed to meet with him. “I said, ‘Hey Tom, I’ve got this idea. What about doing a series of residents of affordable housing?’”

Sipe sat down with the photographer and explained affordable housing and building with tax credits. He said, “We’ve done a good deal sharing affordable housing through the built environment, but I want to make the point that it is not the housing, it’s the people we want to see.” When Casalini showed interest, Sipe continued, “Once you get into this, you’ll see what I mean.”

So with funding assistance from IAHC and the Indiana Community Development Authority, Casalini, Sipe and his staff conceived the specifics of the project. The photographer would travel to each of the state’s nine congressional districts and choose two tax credit-backed affordable housing facilities in each district. In each facility, Casalini would talk to residents and then choose one to photograph and represent that building. He and his assistant would also record commentary from the portrayed subject, and an excerpt from that recording would become part of the exhibition.

Casalini chose black-and-white for his medium. “I’ve been doing black-and-white now for the past 20 years,” he says. “I think the emotion is a little stronger in black-and-white. They become timeless in a sense that we don’t have to worry about fashion, we don’t have to worry about color. It takes away visual distraction.”

“I had no idea what we were doing when we got into this,” Sipe confesses. “But it has worked out so well. I told Tom I wanted folks to look happy in the portraits. He said, ‘No, it’s going to be real! I’m going to talk to the residents for as long as it takes [Each conversation ran from about 30 minutes to an hour], and when something clicks between that person and me, that’s when I’ll know it’s time to take the picture.’

“And when you look at one of these portraits,” Sipe adds, “it’s like you’re looking into a mirror.”

“People have preconceived notions of affordable housing,” notes Meadows. “We attempted to break that stereotype.”

Grace and dignity
The portraits represent an entire range of humanity, from young artists and single mothers, to veterans, widows, the disabled and the elderly. What they all have in common is that sense of grace and dignity so evident in the Riis and FSA photos, and what the oral commentaries add is an almost unbearably moving sense of gratitude for how affordable housing has improved their lives and let them become emotionally whole.

Among the commentaries:

Callie Teal of Millstone Pointe, Greencastle a divorced mother with a son who had been living with a sister: “It’s given us our own space and independence. We have wonderful neighbors. I wanted to stay in town, close to his school and my job.”

Eric Grinstead of Lincoln Apartments, Indianapolis a veteran who lost his truck-driving job when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, became homeless and contemplated suicide: “The turning point was asking God to get rid of my anger. I ended up here. It’s been a blessing to get back on my own. I lost everything, but now I’m gaining so much more. I enjoy the community.”

Shayla Harrison of Hopewell Pointe, Fort Wayne a single mother with a young son: “This was just a huge blessing. I wanted my son to be raised in a good environment. He’s never played outside before or had a backyard. Here he has neighborhood friends, and kids can come over and play with him. It’s just awesome to see. He sees his mom work hard and that work ethic is going to be built into him.”

Mary McClamrock of Village of Merici, Indianapolis a young woman with developmental challenges: “I’d been living with my parents and the first day I was a little scared. Now I’m learning to do things on my own, like food and laundry. I’m making friends, and when I hang out with friends, I have a smile on my face.”

Mary Acton of Stonecutters Place, Bedford a woman who’d been widowed for 12 years: “I couldn’t maintain my property. My son told me about [this place], where you have to be at least 65. I love it. I can maintain my independence, which is very important to me. In this building, we’re like family. I’m a lot happier and a lot easier to get along with, I think.”

Linda Chris of Anderson Crossing, Valparaiso an older woman living alone: “I didn’t feel safe where I was before, and too far from the children, I love the people here, I love the office. I can talk to them about anything, good or bad. I love my neighbors.”

The overwhelming impression one gets listening to these testimonials is how safe, comfortable affordable housing is integral to every other aspect of life. “It is so encouraging to hear these people are all very appreciative and grateful for these housing opportunities,” Sipe comments.

When the “Portraits of the Human Spirit” project was completed and ready to be introduced at the IAHC conference, Sipe asked Casalini to be the keynote speaker. “’Tell us how it influenced you and how it changed your perspective,’ I said to him. And he blew everyone away! These were more than just portraits. We showed what good government and what art can do. We showed real people who had had some bumps in the road and are now assets to the community.”

Since the August 2016 conference, the portraits and commentaries have been experienced by many thousands at the Indiana Affordable Housing Association conference, the Midwest Housing Summit and other exhibitions, including prominent positioning in tax credit housing developments. They have a permanent home at IHCDA’s office building and plans are now underway for museum and art gallery shows. “We want to have a gallery show for six weeks in each of the congressional districts,” says Sipe.

“People are starting to pay attention in ways they may not have before,” Meadows notes. “And we think this will help show legislators that we need more affordable housing to be able to help more people, and show that we could do so much more with additional tax credit allocations.”

“Former governor [now Vice President] Mike Pence was very supportive of the idea of affordable housing as more than just buildings; of positively impacting communities,” Sipe adds. “I think this project makes that point through art.

“I also have to say that it took a lot of courage for each of the 18 subjects not only to have their portraits taken, but also to tell their stories. And these are stories of success. This should inspire all of us to do the work we do.”