NYC Affordable Housing Pioneer Addresses New Public Health Class

Ellen Baxter speaks with Olivia Bean ’17

Ellen Baxter ’75, renowned for building innovative housing for low-income tenants in New York City, recently returned to campus to share her insights on the intersections between affordable housing and health.

In 1983, Baxter founded Broadway Housing Communities, which today oversees more than 400 affordable apartments in West Harlem and Washington Heights. She received an honorary degree from Bowdoin in 2005 and a 1994 Bowdoin Common Good Award for this work.

Baxter was invited back to campus by David Hecht, associate professor of history, who is teaching a new public health course, Public Health and the Liberal Arts. The class of 18 students is studying health through the lenses of science, social science, and the humanities. The course includes weekly guest lectures, from both Bowdoin faculty and visiting scholars, who speak on such topics as epidemiology, medical ethics, environmental health, public policy, disability, nutrition, pharmaceuticals, health inequalities, and mental illness—as well as the history, globalization, and literary representations of health.

Thinking about the intersection of public health and housing fits into the course’s aim to consider both medical and non-medical determinants of health, Hecht said. “We can think about healthcare happening in less structured ways,” he said, “and think about health as a product of all the circumstances in a person’s life.” Because homeless people sometimes suffer from mental health issues, substance abuse, or dementia, it is difficult for affordable housing advocates to overlook ill health and its role in poverty and homelessness.

In her talk, Baxter described her path to her current vocation. After she graduated from Bowdoin, she traveled the world on a Watson Fellowship, where she spent some time in Geel, Belgium. Starting in the 13th century, the townspeople of Halle have taken in and cared for homeless mentally ill people.

When she returned to the U.S. to settle in New York City, Baxter said was stirred by the level of destitution she saw in a city with one of the greatest wealth disparities in the country. Astonished by the city’s glaring visibility of homelessness, Baxter pursued a masters degree in public health at Columbia University, where she started a research project to address how the mentally ill survive on the streets. With the help of a litigator, she uncovered a neglected law requiring the city to provide shelter and bedding to all homeless people. Baxter filed a class action lawsuit to provide accommodations for thousands of homeless people.

This suit launched Baxter on a journey to create permanent housing for the homeless and for those struggling to afford housing.

Throughout her lecture, Baxter emphasized the importance of providing people not just with safe homes, but also with access to education and art. Broadway Housing Communities’s buildings including living units as well as centers for art, culture, and childhood education.

The nonprofit’s more recent initiative, The Sugar Hill Project, exemplifies Baxter’s belief “that housing stability, educational opportunity, cultural engagement, and social support are essential elements to the wellbeing of individuals and families and the creation of thriving communities,” she says on her website.

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