This strategy from Smith Hill Community Development Corporation in Providence, Rhode Island, approaches the problem of land-banked property acquisitions in a way that engages and informs the community about upcoming rehabilitation work. This was an opportunity to do something with derelict properties with little, or in some cases, no money.






HousEART seeks not only to help revitalize and beautify neighborhoods, but also to inspire community engagement, remediate urban blight, and contribute to graffiti abatement and the reduction of other crimes centered around unattended properties. Similar programs in Philadelphia and Detroit have shown great success in these areas.

-- Lydia Stein, HousEART artist and point person for bringing the project to the city-at-large


HousEART is a community-wide transformative art project started at Smith Hill Community Development Corporation in Providence, Rhode Island. The project connects artists with neighborhood volunteers in order to bring life and color to foreclosed, vacant houses. The story of HousEART is one of cooperation, communication and transformation. It aims to fill the void between acquisition and renovation. Non-profit community developers of affordable housing often have to wait months, or even years, between acquisition and the beginning of rehabilitation work. So instead of leaving these decrepit buildings as neighborhood blights while the financing is being put in place, artists are invited to bring these properties to life and celebrate the positive changes that are soon to take place.

The art is inherently temporary. It connects artists with neighborhood volunteers in order to form design teams for each house. Plans are required from all teams and artists must be willing to work with and supervise a limited number of volunteers. The actual installation work on the houses models this cooperation and also engages the larger community. In fact, much of the time on-site is spent answering questions from neighbors about what is taking place and why. In many cases, neighbors volunteer to help or bring out drinks for the participants and the space becomes transformed into the best aspects of a public or community space.


HousEART engaged community members, advertised Smith Hill Community Development Corporation's work and provided a clear indication of the value of all neighborhood homes, even the very worst. By extension, this also validates the value of the people in the neighborhood, and acts to counteract the pernicious impact of vacant, foreclosed properties on the psyche of the residents of a community, most importantly the youth.

In some cases, the houses chosen for a HousEART project were magnets for gang-related activity, drinking and drug-use, graffiti and general disreputable behaviors. One pleasant and somewhat surprising impact of HousEART is that it has transformed the various spaces through art. In one particular example, the house had been the largest gathering place for bad activity and vandalism on the street. It was routinely vandalized and took up much of Smith Hill maintenance staff’s time cleaning and clearing. The project cleaned up the entire property and after the installation it was tagged only once in more than 18 months. The artist came back for an immediate touch-up and it has not been touched since.


Vacant foreclosures have such a negative impact on a community, both physically and psychologically. Once Smith Hill CDC started acquiring them for future development, the organization became unwitting accomplices to the problem. It was embarrassing to “own” the properties that were such drags especially because there was no money to perform any simple, cosmetic fixes. However, necessity is the mother of invention, and the organization applied some creativity to the problem by using its community’s best resources – its people. Most artists were local and all volunteers were as well.

  1. Acquire houses
  2. Recruit volunteers
  3. Find artists to participate
  4. Get materials (paints, brushes, etc.) -- Smith Hill CDC spent no money on these supplies, but instead recieved them as donations or spare materials from volunteers.
  5. Get creative

The projects actually enhanced Smith Hill's capacity to spread the word about what the organization does. The outcome was something that was absolutely free to Smith Hill. The organization had a cookout at the end of one project, invited everybody in the neighborhood and that only cost the agency about $150.


HousEART is inherently temporary, though the houses themselves become the sustainable symbols of the transformative work of both the artists’ work and the nonprofit developer. There is some thought to incorporating elements of the individual artwork into the final product, in terms of color schemes, or design choices and this will be interesting to see how it takes shape.

One HousEART artist wrote grants which enabled her to take this idea city-wide, so that in the summer of 2010, there were about 8 more HousEART projects done with various CDCs at properties around the city. Smith Hill is also considering a city-side art exhibit designed to highlight the artwork, but also help educate the public about affordable housing and its role in helping ameliorate the negative impact of the housing crisis. Smith Hill is hopeful it will help to bring organizations together, highlight the creative economy in Providence and all the community's great artists, and demonstrate affordable housing’s positive impact on the community.


About Smith Hill

About the HousEART project


HousEART artists:

Lynn Harlow

Lydia Stein


HousEART in the news:

Providence Journal, Nov. 12, 2010

Providence Business News, Sept. 14, 2009


Similar programs in other cities:




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Replies to This Discussion

Thanks for sharing this strategy. The photos really tell the story. It was nice to learn about this type of initiative. Do you know who is giving out grants to support this type of work?

Hi Sara,


The initial project was accomplished for free - volunteer time and donated and found materials.  Once the first series was finished, and, more importantly, received some positive press, there was some momentum generated for grant seeking.  At that point, the Rhode Island State Council for the Arts provided a grant to one of the original artists to replicate this in another area of the city.  Our State Housing Authority, Rhode Island Housing, our local LISC affiliate and the City of Providence also indicated a high level of interest and added some support.


So, what I am trying to express is that this particular initiative has a pretty far reach.  It has the potential to appeal to affordable housing orgs - local, state and national -, art organizations and municipalities.  If you are thinking of doing this, I would suggest that you use the success of our work in Providence as a model to help generate that local interest.  LISC National knows about HousEART as well, so if you have a local-affiliate you could discuss this with them.  Maybe NeighborWorks would be interested since they have publicized it here.

I hope that helps.  Let me know if you have any other questions.


Thanks Christian,


very inspiring work,




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