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Solving affordable housing: Creative solutions around the U.S.

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Artist homes, green buildings, and other ways cities and nonprofits are opening doors to attainable homes

Scott Streble Photographer

Walk through the downtown of any major U.S. city today and it may seem counterintuitive, in the midst of today’s building boom, that we have a housing shortage. In fact, we’re in the middle of an affordability crisis. According to the Urban Institute, for every 100 extremely low-income households in need of an affordable apartment, only 29 units are available, and researchers at the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies found that 38.9 million households are cost-burdened, paying more than 30 percent of their income for housing.

“The simple fact is, in booming economies, it’s faster to hire a software developer than build a new apartment building,” says Kristin Siglin, senior vice president of policy at the Housing Partnership Network.

The U.S. isn’t just short a few units, we’re falling woefully behind. A report by the National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC) and National Apartment Association (NAA) suggest we need 4.6 million new units by 2030, and mayors across the country have made affordability a cornerstone of their campaigns. Experts and officials will, correctly, explain that the issue often comes down to cost: Affordable housing development often doesn’t add up, and without enough government subsidies and policy support, this important need goes unmet.

“We do know what solutions and policies work,” says Giselle Routhier, policy director of the Coalition for the Homeless. “We just need the political will to make it happen.”

But when city leadership, government leaders, and nonprofits get creative and get serious about solving the issues, solutions can take shape. Curbed spoke with experts from numerous housing organizations—Urban Institute, Housing Partnership Network, National Housing Conference, Coalition for the Homeless, and Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies—as well as authors and scholars such as Joel Kotkin, to identify some of the innovative solutions that cities, states, and nonprofits have turned to to help solve the affordability shortage, including inclusionary zoning, removing parking minimums, changing building codes to make it easier to rehab older buildings, and new funding models. Some are small-scale, and none offers an all-in-one solution to this enormous problem (“There is no silver bullet,” says Siglin). But in a time of tight budgets and expanding need, they showcase creative ways to solve one of today’s trickiest urban issues.

Plans call for the Kuhlman Building, a 1940s nurses' dormitory in Denver, to be transformed into affordable workforce housing, with the remainder of the site being developed into for-sale town home's and retail uses.
Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Denver turned vacant apartments into instant, affordable housing

The Mile High city has become a national reference point in conversations about affordable housing because local leaders aren’t just proposing solutions, they’re investing significant money to meet aggressive targets. In early 2016, Denver launched a $10 million Revolving Affordable Housing Loan Fund to help widen the capital pool for affordable housing projects. The initiative has had so much success bringing new projects online that the city expanded support for affordable housing last fall, approving plans to preserve or build thousands of units. A new $500,000 property tax increase, paired with new development impact fees, will raise $156.4 million over the next decade. Other cities, such as Pittsburgh, have also created affordable housing funds, but few have been put to use as quickly as Denver’s.

And Denver is already looking ahead. The FasTracks program seeks to build future affordable housing near stops on the city’s new light-rail line, a great example of what Siglin calls holistic development.

In addition, Mayor Michael Hancock announced a pilot “buy-down” program that would turn vacant high-end apartments into affordable units. By tapping into the newly created housing fund, the flexible program can cover the difference between market rate and affordable rent and quickly add more attainable units to the city’s housing supply.

“This is a city putting up real dollars to create affordable housing,” says Ethan Handelman, vice president of policy and advocacy for the National Housing Conference. “We don’t always think of smaller cities when affordability comes up, but they do have a serious rental problem.”

LDA Architects

One Cleveland nonprofit gives lifelong artists a lifeline to own their home

Many see local artists as a symbol of a thriving, diverse community. But as rent and property value skyrocket, it becomes harder for the creative class to afford housing in increasingly expensive cities. In North Collinwood, Cleveland, innovative programs by Northeast Shores Development, a local nonprofit community development corporation, have given artists a new path toward sustainable housing while also encouraging them give back to the community.

A new six-unit housing development called the Glencove (the building once housed a tavern by the same name) offers artist housing with a slight twist. Residents earn bonus equity every month they pay rent, up to $10,000 over the course of 10 years, which can then be used to pay for a down payment on a studio or home. It’s a pilot artist-ownership model that pushes renters toward more permanent housing. A similar local program by the Cleveland Housing Network, a lease-to-purchase program that gives renters the ability to purchase homes at a discount after 15 years, has sold nearly 500 homes in the past five years.

Last year, Northeast Shores also launched the Ballot Box program, which gives residents a say in how to spend local arts funding, including a choice of projects and topics. The community will vote to decide how to distribute $120,000 in funding for local projects that address healthy living, history, youth engagement, and vacancy. Similar to another program pioneered by the Big Car Collaborative in Indianapolis, which uses artists to anchor sustainable redevelopment in the city’s Garfield Park neighborhood, Northeast Shores’ efforts, while small in scale, are tapping into art’s oversized power to bring communities together.

Courtesy Aeon

A Minneapolis development does sustainable living on a budget

Described as a “learning lab” by its developers, the Rose, a new 90-unit mixed-income development, takes the long view, not just due to its unprecedented commitment to green design principles, but also because it sees sustainability as a long-term cost-saver.

This revolutionary $36 million project, which opened in 2015, features an array of green amenities and features usually found in more expensive buildings: locally sourced and chemical-free building materials, a community garden, solar panel-ready roofs, and a super-tight building envelope (the units are 75 percent more energy efficient than those in traditional buildings). Why does this matter? Developers Aeon and Hope Community managed costs and created a healthy, energy-efficient, and low-maintenance environment that sets a template for future affordable projects.

While it was more expensive to build than other housing developments, its developers say it was a pioneering development that will pay off over time, as lessons learned here can be applied to future apartments.

"The Rose can't be a one-off," says Gina Ciganik, a former Aeon executive who helped kickstart the development and is now working with the Healthy Building Network to help share lessons from the project. "If other people don't learn from it, we failed."

Halkin Mason Photography

This Philadelphia complex provides a home and a healthy community

Affordable housing works best when it provides more than just a place to live. In Philadelphia, the Jonathan Rose Company, known for skillfully designed affordable-housing projects, helped create a unique community-oriented building as part of the transformational Paseo Verde project. Located adjacent to Temple University Station, a major transit hub, and situated on a former gas-station parking lot in North Philadelphia that residents once referred to as a “open wound,” this $48 million building offers more than just 120 sleek, new LEED Platinum apartments. It’s a huge investment in the long-term health of the neighborhood and its residents.

The building breaks the mold in many ways. Its connection to a transit hub, landscaped terraces, and green roof help support a sustainable lifestyle. It’s also a center for healthy living, thanks to the integration of numerous healthcare facilities within the building. Home to a health clinic run by the Public Health Management Corporation, a pharmacy, and supportive services provided by Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha (Association of Puerto Ricans on the March), an iconic community group and partner in the project, Paseo Verde offers a huge benefit to the neighborhood.

Other recent projects have seen similar success connecting residents with much-needed community services. In San Francisco’s Mercy House, for example, two family daycare centers support working parents while also providing a source of employment for residents. In Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood, developments by the nonprofit Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH) include an in-house community resource center for job and skills training. And in Atlanta, the East Lake community was rebuilt around the Charles R. Drew Charter School system, connecting local children to some of the district’s best education.

Salt Lake City is battling homeless by focusing on housing first

Officials in Utah would be the first to say that homelessness is a community challenge that hasn’t been solved. But in urban centers such as Salt Lake City, the Housing First approach that’s been pioneered here has shown incredible promise in reducing chronic homelessness and providing housing for those most in need.

As the name implies, the approach starts by first finding homes for the chronically homeless without applying other stipulations or requirements, such as passing drug tests. The philosophy was born from the economic realities of treating homelessness: that a small percentage of chronic cases generate outsize costs for the government.

As the Housing First approach has shown success, cities such as Salt Lake have become increasingly proactive in applying its lessons. Last fall, the city dedicated $30 million to address homelessness and provide “deeply affordable housing” for those most in need. “The solution to homelessness is housing,” said city councilmember Derek Kitchen. It may seem obvious in hindsight, but it’s just starting to truly gain traction in the U.S. In New York City, Gateway Housing, a new nonprofit, is working to ease the homeless crisis by adding hundreds of transitional units within existing developments.

Canada created a national policy for better housing

Affordable housing is an extremely local issue, but well-conceived national policy (and funding) can make a massive difference. Our neighbor to the north not only made housing costs a campaign issue last year, but has backed up the rhetoric with a substantial national strategy to address affordability (in sharp contrast to the cuts proposed by the Trump administration).

After a federal study, which sourced more than 7,000 citizens, was released last November, the country’s new Liberal government pledged $11.2 billion Canadian (U.S. $8.9 billion) to create more affordable housing during budget discussions this spring. The president of the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation quoted Richard Florida in his statement last month outlining the contours of his country’s plan to add more affordable housing. While the lasting impact of the study and spending have yet to be understood, many view a prioritization of spending on housing, part of a broader effort to strengthen the middle class, as a wise investment.

“There’s a real there there, and they have budgeted money to make it happen,” says Handelman. “You’d have to go back to the Great Society to find a real national affordable housing strategy in the United States.”