One of the most disturbing images to come out of the early days of COVID-19 in North America showed a Las Vegas parking lot whose white lines had been given a new, awful purpose: creating physical distancing parameters for those sleeping rough. By that point, it had become clear that the few measures for containing community spread of the virus – repeatedly washing one’s hands and staying two metres apart from others – were not available to folks experiencing homelessness, including those who were trying to find respite inside cramped shelters. Other cities, including Los Angeles, New York and Toronto, started to commandeer hotels for the homeless. Yet the glaring reality remains: on a global level, we need to once and for all define housing as essential – and as a human right.
If there was ever a moment to seize in advocating for the building of more affordable housing, this is it. In cities around the world, the growing numbers of homeless and precariously housed people require bold new investment. While there are many hurdles – from zoning and building codes to NIMBYism – the opportunity to create more housing is fundamentally tied to political and community will. Every city has the power to fight the status quo by rewriting archaic and often-discriminatory rules that hobble their ambitions to build new housing and embrace missing-middle and other multi-unit typologies that increase the stock of livable spaces.
Homeless people are the most vulnerable population, but the exorbitant cost of living in any major city has made renting or owning a house, condo or apartment in an urban neighbourhood out of reach even for middle-class people. There are, in effect, two parallel but distinct housing crises: While the decades-long erosion of government-led housing programs has left homeless and low-income people without support, rapidly escalating land values in major cities are quickly making rent – let alone home-ownership – all but unattainable for middle-case urbanites. What’s more, the job losses suffered during the pandemic have put millions more people in a precarious housing situation. It’s time to rewrite the rules, and while we’re at it, we need to also relearn a basic tenet of affordable housing: that it is for everyone.
Affordable housing is a catchall term for a solution that regards many distinct yet overlapping problems. “The different types of affordable housing are very different,” Dean Goodman, of the Toronto firm LGA Architectural Partners, which has created numerous relevant projects, explains. “It means everything from cheaper housing to supportive and specialty housing, where services are critical aspects. And the client groups and funding models are also very different; the end-users for supportive housing are not in the marketplace at all.” We also defined “affordable” in our article “Fixing Social Housing (in 6 Easy Lessons),” by John Lorinc (see sidebar).
Both the homelessness problem and the general affordability issue – where even middle-income earners struggle to afford to live in urban realms – need to be tackled with immediate and resolute longterm strategies.
“I think we need a paradigm shift in how we house people affordably, no matter what. Because the way we’re doing it is not working,” says Lawrence Scarpa, who runs architecture firm Brooks + Scarpa with Angela Brooks (also his partner in life). He should know: His firm has been designing affordable housing projects and inclusionary housing projects for decades in California, which has the United States’ largest unsheltered population. That’s 150,000 people without a home in one of the wealthiest regions in the world. In Los Angeles County alone, the number of unsheltered people jumped 13 per cent in the last year to 66,433.
Renowned for pushing the boundaries of both sustainability and aesthetics, Brooks + Scarpa’s projects show that affordable housing can be a vibrant addition to any neighbourhood. And yet, even for Scarpa, the obstacles to building affordable housing units are many – and they’re intertwined. In the U.S., social housing projects are built by non-profits that receive tax credits, which they then sell to multiple investors in exchange for multiple sources of funding. The Low Income Housing Tax Credit program, as it’s called, costs taxpayers $9-billion a year, and is only available to organizations building 100 per cent affordable housing.
According to Scarpa, it’s this type of project that most elicits knee-jerk responses from the larger community: “Everyone comes out of the woodwork against them: NIMBYs, BANANAs, you name it.” (BANANA stands for “build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything.”) Instead, with inclusionary housing – market-rate projects that include a percentage of affordable units – there is less resistance, and less public sector funding required. “It also takes people out of exclusively poor communities and distributes them city-wide,” he says. For Scarpa, inclusionary housing, as seen in Toronto’s Regent Park renewal, is the paradigm shift. While inclusionary housing projects only provide a percentage of affordable units, the solution is scale: We need to build more of these multi-unit, missing-middle buildings and neighbourhoods – which means we need to fight the NIMBYs where they live.
Even if it means joining the fray, NIMBYism is a force architects often find themselves designing against. Lawrence Scarpa and Angela Brooks have taken part in many initiatives that look for the details in zoning to suss out opportunities to bend the rules and bypass NIMBYism completely. A not-for-profit they co-founded called Livable Places helped push through California’s small lot ordinance, which encourages mom-and-pop developers to build density into small lots – and even provided a design toolkit for how and what to build. Scarpa also started a second initiative, the Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute, together with Maurice Cox, the former director of Detroit’s planning and development department. It brings together developers and city officials with a team of designers to improve the quality of housing projects, in terms of how they approach “health, wealth creation, community cohesion.” Founded in 2010, the program is now run by Enterprise, which states that “through AHDLI, over a hundred designers and developers have improved plans for 50 projects across the country, creating high-quality homes and neighbourhood assets for thousands of people.”
NIMBYism and zoning are inextricably tied, the former providing a constituent lobbying consensus for the latter. Communities made up predominantly of (over-valued) single-family houses – a phenomenon across North America – is where NIMBYism thrives. Yet the opposition to densification, and thus the possibility to add more options to the housing stock – from duplexes and triplexes to townhouses and other multi-unit buildings – is based on false assumptions. “Most people think of affordable housing as filled with chronically homeless people, people with drug problems – all kinds of bad connotations,” says Scarpa. “Most of the people are like you and I. Something in their lives has gone wrong and they wound up homeless. And what’s happening now is that the cost of housing is getting so high that teachers, fire fighters, hotel workers – there’s a whole new group of people who can’t afford housing.”
Zoning laws with racist histories have bolstered the NIMBY movement. Writing in The Atlantic about the exclusionary zoning policy recently struck down in Minneapolis, Richard D. Kahlenberg notes, “Policy makers pointed out that the maps that had redlined majority-black areas as ineligible for financing in decades past overlapped significantly with maps that distinguished between single-family and multifamily zones.” He quotes Kyrra Rankine, an activist who pushed for the Minneapolis 2040 plan, which reverses this discriminatory status quo, as saying, “Zoning is the new redlining.”
Kahlenberg emphasizes that the 2040 plan passed because it put the focus on the victims of NIMBYism, and was championed by an activist organization called Neighbors for More Neighbors – which recast these same victims as people who rightfully belonged in the community.
The new zoning plan was approved late last year, and just months before the murder of George Floyd in that city inspired protests, and a new anti-racism movement, around the world. But the past is never dead: The former zoning regulations – which also included bulldozing Black neighbourhoods to make room for freeways – created generational trauma, as Heather Worthington, the former director of long-range planning with the City of Minneapolis, poignantly writes. And reversing this reality will require more than performative box-checking on the part of white people. “We have the ability to demand change rather than tolerate or be complicit in the oppression, injustice and bias,” she concludes. “We are the problem and the solution. We elect the people who make these policies; we pay the police officers and urban planners. White people, including me, are responsible for changing the racist systems we created.”
Acknowledging the disproportionate devastation that COVID-19 has wreaked on Black communities, and responding to the fact that Black men are 3.5 times more likely to be killed by police than whites, lawmakers in many U.S. cities have declared racism a public health emergency. Housing policies have also been singled out as major contributors to this crisis: “Housing segregation and racist housing policies have limited access to education and healthcare, and left minorities disproportionately exposed to toxic and cancer causing chemicals in the water they drink, the air they breathe,” Maanvi Singh writes in The Guardian.
Zoning is the scourge of progressive urbanism. (Just read this piece and this piece by my colleague Stefan Novakovic). Proscribing much of what needs to be done to densify cities, downzoning initiatives have succeeded in numerous urban centres for reasons that are dubious, to say the least. In Los Angeles, Proposition U, held up in the mid-1980s as a panacea to traffic and congestion in the Valley, drastically undermined the city’s ability to literally rise above its sprawl. The city recently passed Measure JJJ, to encourage density and affordable housing near transit hubs, and earmarked $1.2-billion to do so.
This is good news for urbanists and architects who have been championing density for decades. But coronavirus has sparked worry that density itself will come under attack. “It’s still very early to speculate too much on how building might change physically in response to COVID-19, but there is going to be an inevitable push-back against increasing density in our cities, and that is troubling,” says Benjamin Ruswick, an architect at Michael Maltzan Architecture in Los Angeles. “Achieving positive forms of density is important for many economic, sustainability and cultural reasons. New projects will need to evolve to meet the concerns around pandemics and distancing intelligently, while maintaining the goal of creating greater opportunity and access to live and work in our cities.”
In Toronto, as Alex Bozikovic recently pointed out in the Globe and Mail, the city owns much under-built land that could be densified with affordable housing. Yet the main obstacle to the city’s own Housing Now program is its backwards approach to land-use planning and urban design rules, which he characterizes as “convoluted and outdated.” A fixation with height and a codified aversion to juxtaposing tall towers with mid-rises – which should call to mind the globally recognizable refrain about preserving “neighbourhood character” – inhibit the city’s own real estate agency, CreateTO, from building more density in the way a typical commercial developer would be able to.
To understand how city property is crucial for affordable and supportive housing, one need only look to Eva’s Phoenix. The project, by LGA, replaced the original home of the not-for-profit’s program that helps homeless youth transition into housing. That location was on city property, which the municipal government leased to Eva’s for $1/year. “There’s no money (otherwise), only large grants or public funding,” explains LGA’s Dean Goodman, who led the project. “The city comes up with money or uses excess buildings or real estate for supportive housing.” But as the whole area developed, the city also wanted to develop that parcel of land. It basically told Eva’s, “You have to move.” Adam Vaughan, the Member of Parliament who was a longtime city councillor representing its central downtown neighbourhood, found the organization its new property on a city work site on Brant Street.
The next obstacle was building code. Eva’s layout resembles that of an apartment building, yet it also incorporates open, communal spaces “so that you can see or hear an issue or argument [among tenants] as it arises,” says Goodman. “It’s for people who’ve been living rough and are learning to get along, which is critical to the programming – to cook, get along, gain life skills. Part of the building is about teaching those things,” he says, also referring to the in-house carpentry mentorship program. To have an open layout was not allowed under the province’s building code, so LGA worked with a code consultant to build in more measures for safety.
Building codes also determine what materials can be used for construction, with an eye to maintaining the safety of building occupants. Many building codes are slow to accept new energy-efficient materials and technologies that would allow for innovative approaches to affordable housing. Benjamin Ruswick, from Michael Maltzan Architecture, is working on a project, the proposed Alvidrez in Los Angeles, that seeks to use carbon-sequestering mass timber for a building that would provide 150 studio apartments, and one manager’s unit, for formerly homeless individuals.
“We are excited about the prospect of using mass timber as a construction material, but there remain regulatory obstacles to address,” he says. “In California, there is currently no framework for approving the project as a mass timber frame system.” While the International Building Code is scheduled to define mass timber systems under Type IV construction during the next code cycle update, “it will not be adopted in California until after the Alvidrez is under construction.” How will they move ahead? “We have been pursuing a performance-based design approvals process to advance the conversation ahead of the updated code definitions.”
The project is being completed in collaboration with the Skid Row Housing Trust, which he says is equally committed to “providing thoughtful design solutions that improve the lives of the residents.” Indeed, the Trust has been at the fore of ingeniously designed housing (some of it also by Brooks + Scarpa). “In addition to providing private spaces, we have found that developing communal living spaces that foster interaction and a sense of community are essential to the successful provision of permanent supportive housing. In this instance, the Alvidrez includes supportive services and community spaces for residents – including social services offices, a communal kitchen, laundry room, conference room and residents’ lounge, as well as outdoor terraces scattered throughout the residential levels.”
The holistic program Ruswick describes is at the heart of the best-designed social housing and inclusionary housing projects around the world. It’s certainly germane to The Peninsula, a redevelopment of the Hunt’s Point neighbourhood in the Bronx, New York, by WXY and Body Lawson Associates. “I think Hunt’s Point is still going to be a very valid project, post-COVID,” says Victor Body-Lawson, “because of the spatial nature of the project. And I think it will still be a connector; it will connect the rest of the neighbourhood without making it feel like it’s a crowded development.”
Claire Weisz of WXY adds, “Hunt’s Point is an environmental justice community, one that the community advocated for.” In fact, it’s on the site where the Spofford Youth Detention Facility, a notorious jail for kids, once stood. The new development includes “an artisanal food hub, health and wellness centre, fresh grocer, new film production studio, affordable housing for the Hunts Point neighbourhood, and a live-work community for the South Bronx tech and creative sectors, [all] seamlessly integrated and co-located onto the 4.75 acre site.” Expected to create 177 permanent jobs and more than 1,600 temporary construction jobs, the project was designed for the New York City Economic Development Corporation and the Department of Housing and Preservation Development.
For Body-Lawson, it’s just one of numerous projects he’s working on focused on vulnerable populations. His Home Street Residences, built to LEED Gold certification standards, dedicates 30 per cent of units to formerly homeless senior citizens, with the rest allotted for low-income individuals and families.
Both the Peninsula and Home Street address the dearth of housing in New York City, where tens of thousands of people typically vie for the 40 to 60 units available to them in inclusionary or fully affordable buildings through a lottery system. (The lottery for Home Street’s 43 units attracted approximately 50,000 applicants.) When he was elected, Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed to build or preserve 300,000 affordable housing units by 2026, through his Housing New York 2.0 initiative. Yet, as the New York Times reported, “the odds of winning one of New York’s affordable housing lotteries are one in 592.”
The urbanist ideal of the shared street that The Peninsula adopts – a public outdoor space that connects the housing to the greater community – is also central to Lorcan O’Herlihy’s affordable housing projects in Los Angeles. “My goal is to create uplifting housing that’s also a shared street – a common open space,” he says. “The challenge is to get the community at large to recognize that we have to address the issue and recognize that the homeless are part of society.”
MLK1101, a supportive housing project for formerly homeless veterans as well as chronically homeless and low-income households, is architecture as a social act, O’Herlihy says. The recently completed project, which is a finalist of the 2020 AZ Awards, puts as much emphasis on the space between the units as on the units themselves. By creating an “outdoor living room,” the project allows for natural light and ventilation inside.
Another project, currently under construction and also designed for developer Clifford Beers Housing, is Isla Intersections. It is made up of stacked shipping containers prefabricated offsite, which effectively works around the prevailing-wage costs that mandate that affordable housing projects pay construction workers a higher rate than market-rate housing projects. The project is sited on a freeway interchange connecting the 110 and 105 freeways. Yet Isla is still centred on the concept of the shared street, with a farmer’s market, a green lawn and trees to absorb freeway toxins. “The key move,” says O’Herlihy, “is to make it a space for people. It’s open and engages society.” In order to create this “paseo,” the firm consolidated three small lots, with funding from the Annenberg Foundation.
“Affordable housing is not just for homeless people,” Lawrence Scarpa explains. “And that’s not how it started either. It started with the New Deal in the 1930s. It was meant for people who could actually afford to pay for housing. It wasn’t until the 1950s when people moved to the suburbs, and the poorest of poor were left behind, that we started to house them in what in the U.S. are called The Projects.”
Much “big government” involvement in housing has historically been poorly handled. The U.S., which used to build a lot of affordable housing, stopped doing so when prominent projects like Cabrini Green and Pruitt-Igoe – both fundamentally flawed in both design and operation – proved to be failures and were subsequently razed. Concentrating – and segregating – low-income Black populations in poorly maintained buildings with little access to services and opportunities, America’s mid-century projects provoked a social stigma of public housing that remains to this day. Since then, the government has relied on a voucher-based system, paying low-income-earning people a portion of their market rent.
But consistent investment in confronting the problem at the federal level is required now more than ever. In a Curbed L.A. article, Heidi Marston, the head of the Homeless Services Authority, explains that despite Los Angeles’ one-time initiative to pump $1.2-billion into building affordable housing and making available over 1,700 city-owned parcels to the developers of such housing, what’s needed is “bolder” action and $500 million every year “over a long period of time.” While anxieties about a return to “The Projects” still permeate the American imagination, the kind of mixed-income, typologically diverse and amenity-rich urban communities championed by the likes of Brooks + Scarpa, Michael Maltzan, Lorcan O’Herlihy, WXY, Body Lawson Associates and LGA are a far cry from the 1950s. What’s needed now are policies that unlock both the land to build new housing and the public money to make it truly affordable.
What’s needed is a New Deal. In too many cities, it has become unconscionably expensive to live in the urban centre. This phenomenon is pushing far too many middle-class people to the suburbs and exurbs, from where they either have to make hours-long commutes to and from work via a patchwork of public transit options or drive their cars in – which unleashes tonnes of carbon emissions into the atmosphere and exacerbates climate change. But poor and precariously housed people face much greater challenges. Calling for a New Deal, Joe Cressy, a Toronto city councillor and the chair of the city’s Board of Health, cites not only the 100,000 households in Toronto on the waiting list for housing assistance and 8,000 who are sleeping in shelters on any given night, but also the million jobs that the country has lost in the midst of COVID-19.
What’s standing in our way? Zoning laws and NIMBYism can be undone with ingenuity. It’s been proven. Back in 1969, Massachusetts and other New England States enacted various versions of the so-called anti-snob initiative. If single-family-home communities came out against multi-unit housing, a developer could obtain a right to build in any part of the neighbourhood. The response from affluent homeowners was to accept the new zoning, just so they could control where the new structures would be erected.
Beyond fighting the status quo, we need to also come up with entirely new approaches. And new ways of thinking about the problem are emerging because of coronavirus: In Vancouver, activists have called on the B.C. government, which secured 600 spaces in hotel rooms and community centres for homeless people, to buy up these properties for permanent housing. “We need to develop as a province an acquisition strategy to buy the hotels,” says Jill Atkey, president of the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association.
As the examples throughout this article prove, architects have a major role to play. “The architecture community is already doing a great deal to develop affordable housing as a part of individual practices – at least that is true in Los Angeles,” Benjamin Ruswick says. “Architects can also work effectively in areas outside of traditional design, directly with political leadership, with funders, with neighbourhood groups, and to promote positive visions of affordable housing. Broadening the discipline to be more visible and activist is important.”
The public health crisis has shown that money and resources exist to provide housing for all. Why do we have to wait until people are forced to squat in abandoned homes before we decide as a society that everyone has a right to be housed safely? Now’s the time for a New Deal.
We talk to Brooks + Scarpa, Body Lawson Associates, Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects and more about building social housing and tackling the bigger issues around affordability in big cities.