Monday, August 1, 2011

AFFORDABLE HOUSING: The Invisibile Answer

A while back, I wrote a column on why architects have so often failed at designing affordable housing. It drew a flurry of responses from my colleagues--some thoughtful, some merely huffy and self-righteous. A few architects who’ve spent a good portion of their careers developing affordable housing were understandably offended at being lumped in with the rest of us. Many others missed the point altogether, which was that traditional architectural schooling all but guarantees an architect who’ll design expensive buildings, not affordable ones.

Many respondents cited examples of successful, high-profile affordable housing projects aimed at low income groups. Few acknowledged that the need for affordable housing is no longer limited to the poor--increasingly, it applies to the middle class as well. Over the past ten years, aspiring middle-class home owners have been doubly hammered--early in the decade by the ballooning cost of single family homes, and now, in the midst of the Recession, by declining income. 

In fact, through feast and famine, the median price of homes has continued to rise ahead of any increase in family earnings, despite the increasing reliance today’s families place on dual incomes. Simple arithmetic will reveal the result: More people than ever are now deprived of the American dream of home ownership.  

How can any nation expect to provide affordable housing for its poor when, increasingly, it can’t even house its middle class? And can any place really be called a “community” when its own teachers, firefighters, cops, and librarians can’t afford to live there?  

The reasons behind the rising cost of homes are manifold, as many correspondents pointed out. By heavily favoring loans for conventional housing types, conservative lending institutions help enforce formulaic, cookie-cutter development, while quashing promising housing ideas that fall outside the usual bounds.  

Our nation’s moribund zoning laws have had a similar effect, though they do it by segregating usages and doggedly insisting on low densities and land-squandering building setbacks. Developers--the few that still dare to build in this  economic climate--respond to these limitations by sticking to well-tried formulas, concentrating on the sort of huge, overblown tract homes that used to yield the highest profits.  

Architects have bills to pay too, and perhaps that’s why so many of us in the profession seem unwilling to raise our voices against the idiocies of hyperrestrictive zoning, meddlesome design review boards, and the national appetite for pointlessly oversized home designs.       

Strangely, though, despite the many architects who voiced an opinion on the subject of affordable housing, not one cited the most successful and ubiquitous form of affordable housing there is--possibly because architects have had virtually nothing to do with its development. 

I’m talking, of course, about manufactured homes, those boxy, prefabricated units that used to be known as mobile homes and, before that, as trailers.  Despite garnering little more than contempt from the architectural profession during their fifty-plus years of existence, manufactured homes are among the few housing types that actually deliver on the promise of affordability, every day, and in every state of the union.  

Scourge or solution?  We’ll take a closer look next time around.

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