Elaine Braithwaite

Year of Graduation: 
Elaine Braithwaite ’03.

"Having a place to live is a fundamental part of being able to succeed in your life."

Chicago-born-and-raised Elaine Braithwaite ’03 vividly remembers car trips across the city, when her mom would drive her to piano lessons. As they drove from the South Side to the North Side and back, Elaine noticed the abrupt change in urban neighborhoods.

“I remember being just fascinated with the city as a living, breathing thing,” she says. “I was taken by the fact that you could go from Downtown Chicago to housing projects to Hyde Park. Just seeing how neighborhoods changed so rapidly … caught my eye. As I got older, I started thinking, ‘Why is this the case? Why do some neighborhoods have resources while others don’t?’ Growing up in a city fostered that curiosity.”

Brathwaite has channelled that childhood interest into an intentional career. Currently with New York-based L+M Development Partners, she was previously a policy adviser for three years in New York City’s Office of the Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development. There, one of her first projects coalesced as a 10-year, five-borough plan to, among other objectives, develop vacant and underused lands, preserve the affordability of government assisted, rent-regulated housing, and create affordable housing for a range of inhabitants, from families on low incomes to middle-class households that are being priced out of the city.

“There’s an affordable-housing crisis across the city,” Braithwaite explains, “and in developing the Housing Plan we sought to create a framework to develop implementable strategies for creating new units of affordable housing and protecting the tenants who live in those apartments.”

I do remember really being forced to think about why I thought the way I did.”

Just over a year ago, Braithwaite returned to L+M — she was with the company prior to working with the deputy mayor — and is now working on a hospital/housing project with the Bronx’s St. Barnabas Hospital, a project that lies at the nexus of home, health and wellness. Once complete, it will outfit St. Barnabas with a new ambulatory care center, a gym, a teaching kitchen, ground-floor retail and a day care center for the community, and the hospital. Ideally, such a campus will improve people’s health outcomes and encourage healthy lifestyles, as well as provide affordable housing for community residents and for previously homeless families.

“This is the kind of project that I joined L+M to do,” Brathwaite says. “I am interested in how housing, retail and community facilities can impact neighborhoods, and I liked the way that L+M partnered with other organizations to do placemaking throughout New York. … I believe that high-quality housing — high-quality affordable housing — and having a place to live is a fundamental part of being able to succeed in other parts of your life. By partnering with a hospital, we’re able to think about what the challenges are that people face both at a chronic-illness level as well as in terms of simply being able to access a healthier lifestyle.”

Some of the outcomes of that thinking include a hospital-associated fitness center with extended hours so hospital staff can have a flexible exercise schedule; a teaching kitchen where hospital staff can learn how to teach patients to make healthy, affordable meals; and a rooftop farm where people can learn about growing vegetables, fruits and herbs, and which will include tables for community dinners.

Another element of the project includes housing units for low-income families and for formally homeless households, who are also often high users of Medicaid and emergency services. “The hope is,” Brathwaite explains, “that by considering people who are in and out of the hospital frequently, we provide them not just with stable housing, but also with ways to access supportive services at their home. That would mean less need for emergency care, while maintaining more balanced health care at home. So it’s an interesting nexus of housing in the traditional sense, but also incorporates thinking about wider-ranging services that a community might need. It’s really about how to integrate housing and health, how to make this a green and accessible project that’s actually impactful in a positive way for people’s day-to-day lives.”

Exeter is one of those places that fosters real space to explore the things you’re thinking about; you could think through ideas and solutions to problems."

Braithwaite’s time at Exeter helped her learn to examine situations more broadly, while introducing her to peers from other cities. “They’d had such different experiences with their own cities,” she says. “It was fascinating to hear other people’s outlooks and orientations toward their city. Also, Exeter is one of those places that just fosters real space to explore the things you’re thinking about; you could think through ideas and solutions to problems. Just being part of that Harkness table and hearing the opinions of people coming from such different backgrounds, that really did help you think about, ‘Why do I think the way I think?’”

Braithwaite attended the University of Pennsylvania using part of that time to intern with the Reinvestment Fund, a community-development financial institution. “That was my first experience doing something in my field,” she says. “I learned about the ways this institute used capital to impact cities. They lend into projects that have some kind of community-development/economic-development concept. It made me realize this was an actual job that people have, that this was a way that people were using money to impact places for the good.”

Braithwaite then spent several years in Oakland, California, working for The Greenlining Institute, a public policy group, and then for the Oakland Redevelopment Authority. It was her first role in city administration and offered valuable insight into the role of cities in providing services to neighborhoods, creating an economic-development and affordable-housing agenda, and working with other public and private parties to fulfill that agenda.

Graduate study in city planning at MIT followed, including internships at both L+M and The Hudson Companies, a second affordable-housing developer in New York City. “That’s when I knew,” Brathwaite says, “that affordable-housing development was a thing — and it was the thing that I was interested in.”

And this professional suddenly sounds just as excited as when she was describing her discovery of the various neighborhoods of her home city through the window of a car. “I never knew, as a kid, that something called urban planning existed,” she says, “but I always knew that cities were what I was interested in.”

— Daneet Steffens ’82

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the fall 2018 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.