California needs 3.5 million housing units. That’s more housing units than currently exist in most states. This shortage—California ranks 49th in housing units per capita, ahead of only Utah—developed slowly but has metastasized into a true crisis, with housing costs rising to untenable levels for all but the most well-off Californians. In considering how and where to add a volume equivalent to all of Virginia, a key question is, what state—or, rather, what city—will those new units look like? Will they look like the tract homes of Phoenix? The row houses of Philadelphia? The high-rise apartments of New York City? The triple-deckers of Boston? The genteel mansions of Richmond? Or, perhaps worst of all, the mid-rises of Hollywood? The answers depend in large part on where new housing gets built. A recent bill in the California legislature almost provided the answer—almost. Senate Bill 50, sponsored by San Francisco–based State Senator Scott Wiener, would have mandated increased housing densities around major public transit lines and “jobs rich” areas throughout the state by requiring cities to permit multifamily buildings of up to five stories by right. Wiener contended that California needs more housing and that the best locations are those that enable residents to minimize commuting by personal automobiles. A relatively late amendment would have eliminated single-family zoning, permitting homeowners to build up to four units on any single-family lot, and limited the high-density provisions to counties of over 600,000 residents. California has always maintained a tense relationship with density, often failing to plan for it while suffering its ill effects all the same. SB 50 could be the catalyst to help the state abandon its suburban fetishes once and for all. An updated version of a bill that Wiener sponsored last year, SB 50 nearly made it out of the State Senate until Appropriations Committee Chair Anthony Portantino scuttled it with a procedural tactic, refusing to bring it to a vote in committee. The move put an abrupt end to what had arguably been the most heated debates over land-use legislation in state history. SB 50, like many other recent controversies related to development and housing in California, did not inspire neat loyalties. While its core support came from the increasingly influential YIMBY movements and core opposition came from homeowners, the politics were messy at best. Conservatives could love its relaxation of regulations but hate its emphasis on dense urbanism. Liberals were more intensely fractured. SB 50 appealed to values of inclusion and of progressivism, be they socioeconomic or aesthetic. For some, the bill served the cause of equity simply by potentially creating more housing. Other liberals saw it differently. Advocates of social justice feared SB 50 would empower capitalist developers while displacing and disenfranchising vulnerable populations through eviction and demolition. Older liberal activists, especially in suburban areas, put their economic interests first, recoiling from the prospect that increased housing supply might depress their property values. Many of them protested SB 50’s potential to interfere with “neighborhood character.” (Wiener’s antagonist Portantino represents La Cañada Flintridge, a comfortable suburb north of downtown Los Angeles.) Institutionally, the League of California Cities and many city councils statewide condemned SB 50 for trampling on “local control,” asserting that land use decisions have always belonged to municipalities and municipalities alone. Many mayors, however, including those of Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco, and San Jose, praised SB 50 for giving cities a new opportunity to ease their housing crisis—and to do so equitably statewide, forcing housing-phobic cities to approve their fair share of housing rather than ignore demand and dodge their obligations in the name of municipal sovereignty. By some accounts, a full 97 percent of California cities failed to meet their state-mandated housing goals in 2018. The California chapter of the American Planning Association controversially opposed SB 50, citing concerns about technical aspects of the bill’s language, even though many of its more progressive members favored it. Chapters of the American Institute of Architects did not take a position on it. Design rarely factored into these discussions explicitly, but its influence cannot be overlooked. Fears about changes to “neighborhood character” often accompany prejudices about “undesirable” racial or socioeconomic groups. They also refer to lousy design. Many homeowners recoiled against SB 50 out of fear that modest cottages might be overshadowed by a new triplex next door or crowded by the addition of an accessory dwelling unit. Urban activists took aim at even bigger targets. Opponents of growth in Los Angeles in particular have long railed against what they consider oversized, ugly, and excessively capitalistic apartment buildings. Such enormities often occupy full city blocks and rise five or six stories, with wood framing above one-story concrete bases. They have been the mainstay of Hollywood’s decade-long growth spurt and have arisen in many other moderately dense neighborhoods around the state. Revulsion is, often, completely justified. Large but underwhelming, and expensive but unrefined, such developments have poor detailing, clunky dimensions, and, often, antagonistic relationships with the street. They have neither humor nor grace nor character, and they succeed at one thing and one thing only: housing many people. Typically, those people are well off—or at least are pretending to be. While California’s housing crisis has many causes, it’s not unreasonable to say that lousy design is one of them, and it’s not unreasonable for opponents of SB 50 to make apocalyptic predictions about aesthetics. This is the backdrop against which architects should contemplate the revival of SB 50. Wiener has pledged to bring it back next year, and the appetite for major housing legislation remains fierce—before long, some version of SB 50 will pass, and the opportunities for architects and architecture will be profound. The quality of design that follows the passage of the next version of SB 50 will, without exaggeration, determine the look, feel, and function of California cities for at least the next generation. Many opponents of SB 50 criticize it as a "giveaway" to capitalist developers. If architects are to support the next version of SB 50, they should want to be seen as stewards, not opportunists. Upzoning around transit stops will create entirely new transit-oriented neighborhoods. Places that currently consist of park-and-ride lots and single-family homes will rise to five and six stories, with less parking than most zoning codes currently mandate. That’s like taking a cookie cutter to San Francisco’s Mission District or Los Angeles’s Koreatown and depositing the result in bedroom communities and office parks. Of course, California has hundreds of major transit stops and jobs centers (over 200 light- and heavy-rail stations alone), and the whole point of SB 50 is to distribute development statewide so that neighborhoods grow gradually. Even so, some places will be transformed sooner rather than later. In a state where many residents are mortally afraid of density, the choices that architects make will determine whether the new urban California is a dream or a nightmare—they can stumble into the latest versions of capitalist postmodern, or they can reflect on everything we have learned about the benefits of density. Designs have to be thoughtful, attractive, and socially conscious. They have to celebrate density, enhance the public realm, and give California cities a sense of style and character that they have lacked for decades. (Likewise, cities’ design guidelines and review boards will have to get savvier.) If SB 50’s single-family home provision survives (which seems unlikely), it will create a bonanza for residential architects. They will get to re-learn the art of the duplex, triplex, and quadplex—typologies that used to be common in California but have been all but extinct since the Truman administration. But new homes must not realize neighbors’ worst nightmares. They must not loom over their predecessors. They must not be large for largeness’s sake. In short, they must treat neighbors as clients. Whatever lawmakers intend for SB 50, the public will render its final judgment according to how architects seize the moment. Whether they like it or not, architects bear the final responsibility to fulfill the public trust. Of course, the real beauty of SB 50—if it comes to pass and if it works as intended—will be invisible. That will be the opportunity to craft affordable and humane housing for hundreds of thousands Californians.
Posts tagged with "Affordable Housing":
U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was on hand at the opening of a new 67-unit senior housing complex in Corona, Queens—the first affordable housing to be built in the neighborhood in 30 years. In close alignment with the representative's leadership on climate change initiatives like the Green New Deal, the $36 million affordable development is also one of the largest low-income senior housing projects in the country to meet Passive House standards for energy consumption, according to a statement by New York City's Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). The 8-story senior housing project at 54-17 101st Street was designed by New York–based THINK! Architecture and Design and developed in a partnership between HANAC—the Hellenic American Neighborhood Action Committee—a community organization, and affordable housing nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners. All 67 units, a mix of 1-bedrooms and studios, are set aside for low-income seniors, with 21 units expressly dedicated to formerly homeless seniors. In addition, the project is a mixed-use development, with a preschool in the building that will serve 60 children and will be administered by the New York City School Construction Authority. Constructing the building 8 stories tall was needed to make the project financially feasible, and required rezoning. But because it is located in a largely low-rise neighborhood of two- to three-story buildings, the architects used a number of strategies to make the project seem less imposing. THINK! broke up the facade into "townhouse-like scales," using different planes and layering materials, window patterns, and colors to vary the surface, according to Jack Esterson, principal at THINK! and the lead architect of the project. The building was also designed so that an upper layer of floors is set back above the first four stories, with a transparent band of windows separating the two layers and making the upper level appear to float above the lower level. This level of windows also fronts an outdoor terrace for residents that connects to the lounge and laundry room. The Corona Senior Residence, as the complex is called, is one of the concrete outcomes of the Willets Point Community Benefits Agreement, a part of the negotiations over the controversial Willets Point Development Plan led by developers Related Companies and Sterling Equities. Funding for the project came from the city, including HPD, the City Council, city subsidies, the Queens borough president's office, Chase, and the low-income housing tax credit, among other sources. "Affordable housing is critical for our most vulnerable New Yorkers, especially our seniors. I am proud to support an organization that strives to provide community-centered, innovative, energy efficient housing," Representative Ocasio-Cortez said at the opening. "With a pre-K on the ground floor and additional programs and services, this is precisely the kind of development our borough needs. I am thrilled to join HANAC on this important occasion as we fight to keep Queens affordable for all." As the representative added on Twitter, "Today was a great example of what can be accomplished w/ a #GreenNewDeal!"
Today was a great example of what can be accomplished w/ a #GreenNewDeal!New building w/: ✅ Not-for-profit senior housing ✅ Universal pre-k in building (intergenerational community!) ✅ Built w/ cutting-edge “Passive House” eco methods🌱 ✅ 90% cleaner than standard buildings https://t.co/9Qpkk4rnHA — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) May 29, 2019
Los Angeles–based firm LA-Más has designed a new twist on a potential solution to the city's affordable housing shortage. The studio released a suite of designs for accessory dwelling units (ADUs) earlier this year that are intended for moderate- and low-income homeowners interested in making supplemental rental income from their properties. The designs are part of the Backyard Homes Project, an initiative led by the firm that will assist homeowners in building ADUs meant to be rented to low-income households. The ADUs take advantage of California state policies passed in 2016 that gave most single-family homeowners in the state the right to create extra rental units on their lots. After the law was passed, LA-Más received funding from the Los Angeles Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LA LISC) to study ways to deploy detached backyard home ADUs that could be rented to tenants paying with Section 8 housing vouchers. Working with a variety of local community organizations and experts, the firm set about designing backyard homes that would be functional and affordable, and would avoid the emerging cliche of the techno-sleek ADU. "We’re oversaturated with a design that looks like it came out of Dwell," Elizabeth Timme, LA-Más's co-executive director said about the ADUs currently being offered by startups and others. Rather than designing giant iPhones for living in, Timme and her team wanted to create ADUs that would be "playfully engaging" and "adapt to the context and character of the community." LA-Más designed ADUs in a range of sizes, from studios to two-bedroom houses, in three different styles: craftsman, modern, and Spanish. Renderings show all three styles using a mix of bright, saturated colors, and playful twists on traditional design elements. The proposed ADUs are decidedly not generic. One of the Spanish-style designs features a pair of 2D pink-and-blue Tuscan columns that wouldn't look out of place in a Charles Moore project. The designs "did come out of a postmodernist design philosophy," Timme said, referring to them as "postmodern-plus." The ADUs and their coloring-book style representations potentially bring liveliness to affordable housing, an area that can sometimes be weighted down with bureaucracy and economically-driven aesthetics. "A lot of people are excited that they could be doing an ADU that’s fun and playful," Timme said. LA-Más is making the designs available to participants in the Backyard Homes Project, which offers financing, design, and construction support to eligible homeowners. The studio will work with participants to adapt the designs of the participants' choosing to their respective sites. Participants must live in a single-family house in the City of Los Angeles and agree to rent out the ADU to Section 8 tenants for at least five years. The project will provide landlord training, project management for design and construction of the ADU, and an optional mortgage product to those selected to be part of the program. Homeowners interested in participating can submit applications until May 1, 2019. More information on applying is available here.
“What if you could download and print a house for half the cost?” reads the lede for the Vulcan II, a 3D printer with a name suited for sci-fi space exploration, on the website of Austin-based company ICON. Now the company has put this claim to the test, building what it says is the first permitted 3D-printed home in the United States, unveiled during SXSW. Using its original Vulcan gantry-style 3D printer, the firm collaborated with global housing nonprofit New Story to build a 650-square-foot home, which features separate bedroom, living, bathroom, and kitchen areas. The home, called the Chicon House, was printed in under 24 hours and while this test cost around $10,000, the firm estimates that future single-story homes, which could be as large as 2,000 square feet, could be printed for thousands less, around $4,000–$6,500. According to New Story CEO Brett Hagler, there is a pressing need to “challenge traditional [building] methods” to combat housing insecurity and homelessness. He adds that “linear methods will never reach the over-a-billion people who need safe homes.” ICON hopes to leverage the technology to help combat global housing crises all while being more environmentally friendly, resilient, and affordable. The printers use a proprietary “Lavacrete” concrete composite, which is made of materials that can be easily sourced locally and has a compressive strength of 6,000 pounds per square inch. The material is designed to withstand extreme weather conditions to minimize the impact of natural disasters, according to the firm. Wood, metal, and other materials can then be added on for windows, roofs, and the like. The printer relies on an “automated material delivery system” aptly called Magma, which blends the Lavacrete with other additives and water stored in built-in reservoirs. The Lavacrete’s composition is custom-tuned to the particular conditions of each location, accounting for temperature, humidity, altitude, and other climatic features. While 3D printing has been used in a number of architectural experiments over the past few years, it is primarily used as a prefabrication tool, with parts printed offsite to be assembled later. ICON argues that printing a whole home at once with a gantry printer is faster and more reliable. Printing the whole home reportedly provides a continuous thermal envelope, high thermal mass, and extremely little waste. The printers, which are transported in a custom trailer, are designed to work in areas where there is limited access to water, electricity, and the infrastructure necessary for traditional construction techniques—although, at least currently, it seems that some more standard construction is needed to finish off the 3D printed walls and turn them into a home. The Vulcan II is operated by a tablet, has remote monitoring technology, and built-in lighting for building overnight. A specialized software suite helps convert CAD drawings into printable forms. ICON has also begun licensing its tech to others. Austin-based developer Cielo Property Group plans to start production of affordable housing in Austin this year using the Vulcan II, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Detroit is an entrepreneurial city. In its heyday, it was full of forward-thinkers who were breaking boundaries by building big business dedicated to innovation and manufacturing. That same spirit still exists in the Motor City today, though some have written off the gritty, Michigan enclave as a place of the past. Many dedicated Detroit natives are working hard to rebuild its legacy as a capital of American economic and cultural development. Kimberly Dowdell, in particular, is using her experience as an architect and a real estate developer, as well as her innate entrepreneurial drive, to change the face of urban housing in Detroit. Along with her team at Century Partners, an emerging firm in the city, she’s tackling long-standing social injustices through the lens of home ownership. She’s doing the same in her new role as president of the National Organization for Minority Architects (NOMA) by advancing representation in the architecture industry and fighting for professional equity. AN spoke with Dowdell about her unique career path, what drives her to rebuild Detroit, and why addressing architecture’s internal issues can help build stronger cities. The Architect's Newspaper: You spent time on the East Coast working as an architect and developer, and then studied public administration as a graduate student at Harvard University. What drew you back to Detroit? Kimberly Dowdell: I grew up in Detroit in the early '90s when the city was in pretty bad shape. The buildings were ghosts of their former selves, which fascinated me, but economically, Detroit was devastated. Instead of moving back after graduating from Cornell with my bachelor’s in architecture, I decided to sample cities on the East Coast (Washington, D.C., and New York), rounding it all off in Cambridge for the Harvard program. Many people ask me why I studied government since I came from a design background, but I firmly believe buildings are intrinsically part of the public realm, so it’s our responsibility to learn everything we can about how policies can work to better the built environment. In 2015, I was recruited by the City of Detroit’s Housing and Revitalization Department, where I worked closely with the Planning and Development Department, collaborating with a long-time mentor, Maurice Cox, Detroit’s Planning Director. That unique opportunity to contribute to Detroit’s resurgence ended my 14-year East Coast tour. AN: Since you’ve been in Detroit, you’ve transitioned into a more entrepreneurial role as a professional and within your current firm, Century Partners. How does your background in public service and design serve you in thinking about housing in Detroit? When I was younger, I didn’t like that Detroit looked bad, so I decided I was going to become an architect. I didn’t really see many people trying to solve the city’s big problems growing up, so I aimed to do it myself. A lot of what I’ve chosen to do in my career has been in response to things that I think are not ideal. As a kid, I actually wanted to be a doctor, which is funny now because I consider myself kind of like a doctor at the macro level. I get to help heal neighborhoods. Architects have to be knowledgeable of all the issues at hand in order to get a project done successfully. To be a developer, you also have to understand the bigger politics at play. With Century Partners, I’m able to use my design eye as I try to maintain the historic fabric of Detroit as much as possible through our projects. AN: What’s the biggest thing you’re working on at Century Partners? Detroit is well-known for its expanse of single-family homes. We’re currently looking at building out neighborhoods that are positioned to contribute to the multi-family housing fabric of the city. We’re currently fundraising to purchase commercial and multi-family buildings in Detroit’s core that will spur economic development, increase density, and create a 24/7 neighborhood. The other major project that we're working on right now is called the Fitz Forward Neighborhood Revitalization project, a city-backed, public-private partnership that will eventually revitalize over 300 parcels of land, including existing homes, open lots, and parkland, across the Fitzgerald neighborhood in central Detroit. AN: You spend a lot of time thinking about Detroit’s future and how to solve these big-picture problems. How is this mindset helpful as you start your new position leading NOMA? I’m three months into my presidency and the biggest thing I want to be really mindful of is fundraising for the organization. As a woman, I think there’s a general consensus that we don’t directly ask for money—as if fundraising is a taboo thing to do. But as president, I want to commit to doing that, which coincidently ties into my fundraising efforts with Century Partners for the commercial property and multi-family housing fund I mentioned. Money is always part of the bigger picture in architecture, but it’s a new challenge for me to think about it so directly. AN: How could more money for your organization have an impact on architecture? I was recently possessed to say out loud in a podcast interview that if someone gave NOMA a million dollars, it could change the face of the profession. We’d have money to fuel our access-related programs like exposing K-5 students to architecture through classes and products, while middle and high school students could more deeply engage with our NOMA Project Pipeline summer camps. College students, especially aspiring architects of color, need help with studio supplies, technology, housing, transportation, and scholarships. As the first millennial president of NOMA, I’ve also begun considering how the architecture profession can alleviate the student debt crisis. Many of my colleagues have really high levels of student debt coupled with comparatively low professional salaries (consider lawyers and doctors) and limited flexibility and financial freedom. How can we as an organization motivate or incentivize people to pursue architecture knowing that compensation is a challenge and the student loan debt is higher than ever? We will miss out on some really talented people if things don’t change. This is also a diversity issue. Minorities in particular struggle with this given the wealth gap. NOMA is about getting people to believe in the power of diversity and the success of companies and organizations who support that vision. I want to make the case that investing in NOMA is investing in the future of a more diverse and equitable profession, which can help build more diverse and equitable cities. AN: So you think addressing the architecture’s internal inequalities would have a trickle-down effect on not only the way firms are set up, but how projects and cities get built? I absolutely think that there is a correlation between who is empowered to author the built environment and how that environment shapes the well-being of the community that it serves. In the words of Winston Churchill, "we shape our buildings and thereafter our buildings shape us." I believe that this statement holds true and I would add that the heightened diversity of our built environment stewards (developers, architects, builders, real estate brokers, etc.) will contribute to a more thoughtful and responsive set of buildings, spaces, and places that will equate to more sustainable cities. I believe in quadruple bottom line sustainability—incorporating financial, ecological, social and cultural priorities. While everyone in the development process has a particular purpose and role, I think that the more we see greater cohesion between those quadruple bottom line priorities, the better off our cities will be moving forward.
Hometown star and Newark, New Jersey-born native Queen Latifah is a developer now. The rapper, actress, and producer is investing in a $14 million development of market-rate and affordable units as co-president of the Blue Sugar Corporation, alongside Jersey-based Gonsosa Development. The project will consist of 20 three-family townhomes with market-rate units and a three-story mixed-use building. That building will contain 1,900 square feet of commercial space for local nonprofits, as well as a fitness center and 16 units of affordable housing. Latifah, through a spokesperson, has indicated that she wanted to address the need for affordable housing in Newark, where more than 20,000 families paid over 50 percent of their income for rent, according to a 2017 study. The project was initially proposed as two mixed-income buildings with more affordable housing, totaling 115 units. But the developer was denied the low-income tax credit by the state, and the project scope was shifted to include more market-rate housing, in which rents will start at $1,800 a month. Renderings for the as-yet-unnamed development show a facade of connected townhouses with alternating bays of wood-faced main volumes and recessed gray brick entrance areas. Initial site plans show the development will take over an entire block bordering Springfield Avenue and South 17th Street. The project is scheduled to begin construction this summer, and the 60 units of market-rate housing are expected to be completed by December 2020. The mixed-use building will be done the following year in 2021.
The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Ziman Center for Real Estate has launched a unique affordable housing development program geared toward sharing some of the most innovative approaches in the field with housing professionals. The executive course, a partnership between school administration and private donors, consists of an intensive three-week program that brings together professors in urban planning and real estate, UCLA M.Arch I graduates, and interested students to develop conceptual proposals for affordable housing projects in Los Angeles. The program—developed by Ziman Center professor of finance Stuart Gabriel, UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs lecturer in urban planning Joan Ling, CityLAB UCLA director Dana Cuff, and others—takes students through the exercise of designing, permitting, and funding their projects with the goal of instilling a “curriculum-based” approach to affordable housing development, according to Ziman Center founding executive director Tim Kawahara. Most of the students in the program are working professionals who are already engaged with the world of affordable housing development in some form, Kawahara explained, but are looking to expand and enrich their current knowledge. Kawahara said that because many of the professionals working in affordable housing have fallen into the field unexpectedly or work for self-taught non-profit housing developers, there is something of a gap in terms of shared, industry-wide knowledge. That’s where the university's deep bench of housing policy- and development-focused professors is stepping in to create a formalized approach to help affordable projects come to life. “The affordable housing crisis in California has reached an untenable level,” Kawahara said. “We have been doing a lot of teaching in the affordable housing space and wanted to find a way to help address the crisis, so we said, ‘Lets do a university-based executive program that will help deliver as many affordable housing and middle income and units as possible.’” The program’s inaugural class has been a smash success. After planning for an introductory cohort of roughly two dozen students, the Ziman Center received over 140 applications for the program. The university is now looking at ways of expanding the reach of the program, either by raising additional funding to hold the course more often throughout the year or by transforming the curriculum into a syndicated learning package that can be taken up by other universities. Word of the program even reached the California State Legislature, which has asked Ziman Center to give a version of the class to interested lawmakers. Organizers hope that more projects like the Little Berkeley development by CityLAB-affiliated Kevin Daly Architects come to life as a result of the program. The award-winning eight-unit project organizes residences in a staggered arrangement on a tight urban lot in Santa Monica and uses oddly-shaped interstitual spaces to provide outdoor access for residents. With California working to allocate tens of billions of dollars in new funding for affordable, supportive, and transitional housing projects, timing for the course and its much-needed curriculum is on the organizers’ side. Across the state, efforts are being made at all levels of governance to bring new funding sources and other incentives to affordable housing developments, while many California cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, have instituted so-called linkage fees that require market-rate developers to include subsidized units in their developments. California’s new governor is working to enact a robust pro-housing agenda that aims to deliver up to 3.5 million units in less than a decade. Perhaps not unexpectedly given this momentum, Kawahara, sees affordable housing as a “growth industry” that might even have the potential to fare better than others if the economy takes a much-predicted downturn. With increasing levels of funding for these projects and political interest in the housing crisis only growing, it’s possible that a sizable percentage of the state’s new housing could come from affordable development initiatives. There’s even room to grow, because despite the prodigious growth in housing incentives and funding for certain targeted groups, “We still have a low- and middle-income housing affordability problem,” Kawahara said.
Off I-95 in the northern Bronx, just past the swamps at the mouth of the Hutchinson River and the paved paradise at Bay Plaza mall, arise 35 massive, brick and concrete tower blocks. Most residences nearby are single-family, but Co-op City's 24-story towers shoot out of the ground like sore, red-brick thumbs. But, as out of place as they seem, there are many similar complexes all around New York City and the rest of the country: Stuyvesant Town by the East Village, Riverton Square in Harlem, and the gone-but-never-forgotten Pruitt-Igoe projects of St. Louis. According to Adam Tanaka, a New York–based urbanist who studied these Bronx housing blocks for his Harvard graduate dissertation, Co-op City is the country's largest and most successful cooperative living facility. Many of its 35,000 residents have been living in them since they opened 50 years ago. In a mini-documentary published with CityLab, entitled "City in a City," Tanaka interviewed residents, building managers, representatives, and others involved in the conception of the towers to understand what makes these buildings so successful compared to other projects. On top of interviews and historical analysis, documentary footage shows what life at Co-op City is like. During most weekends of fair weather, tenants and local merchants buy and sell art and food, local musicians perform while residents dance, and children play on the swing sets. Wildlife even has a large presence there: residents have reported seeing deer. What is so special about Co-op City that allows for beautiful scenes like this to be the norm? Tanaka suggests the towers owe their success not to the City of New York, nor to any federally-funded programs, but to their fellow resident, architects, and the coalition of labor unions responsible for the towers’ development. The documentary highlights several of the complex's relatively unique features: a ban on market-rate apartment resale, permanent rent control (which was established in the early '70s after the state tried to increase rents for Co-op City’s tenants), affordable down payments, an elected representative board, self-funded maintenance, and a racially, culturally, and financially diverse group of tenants. But architectural features like larger-than-average apartments with grand windows and ample living and storage space, as well as multiple communal parks and green spaces—all of which was designed by architect Herman J. Jessor, inspired by Le Corbusier’s Villes Radieuse and Contemporain—play major roles, as well. In the documentary, Alena Powell, a resident of Co-op City since 1973, said a friend from the Upper East Side “was amazed because [Powell’s] living room could hold her [friend's] living room and kitchen all together.” Powell also “likes the fact that [she’s] not on top of other people as if [she] was living in Manhattan.” Other residents remark about how “spacious” the apartments are, and how they love the consistent natural light. Pleasing as they may be for many who live there, the Co-op City buildings were (and are) not without criticism. According to an article in Curbed by historian James Nevius, the Co-op City buildings stand as a testament to the ethics of erasing "slums," and to the power of the infamous Robert Moses, whose "bulldoze it" approach to entire neighborhoods is a highly-debated matter, to say the least. During construction in the early 1970s, many rallied against the design and construction of the towers, citing the cheap and unpleasing exterior. Nevius cites Jane Jacobs, who stated they were “truly marvels of dullness and regimentation, sealed against any buoyancy or vitality of city life.” Nevius also references criticisms by the AIA: "Similarly, the American Institute of Architects complained that 'the spirits of the tenants' at Co-op City 'would be dampened and deadened by the paucity of their environment.'" However, many in Tanaka's documentary do not share those opinions and come to the towers' defense. Ken Wray, former executive director of the United Housing Federation, says “the aesthetic was ‘Why waste money on the outside of the building?’ You don’t live on the outside of the building…People driving by might think it’s ugly but people who live there know what [the apartments] look like.” Often overlooked, too, is a sprawling meadow laced among the buildings. According to Nevius, over 80 percent of Co-op City's footprint is dedicated to landscaping: grass and trees with play structures, courts, benches, and market stands on the perimeter. For the people who use these daily, these are helpful amenities that similar developments do not have. Co-op City raises questions about the emphasis on policy or architecture, about interior design versus exterior, about the house and the outdoors, and about ownership and citizenship. Regardless of where one lands on these issues, there's something to be learned from these 35 towers in the Bronx.
Quarters, a major European co-living company, plans to invest $300 million toward building new developments across the United States and becoming the nation’s largest co-living operator by 2022, according to an article in Curbed. Millennials are the primary target demographic for the co-living industry. Due to financial issues and their tendency to lead nomadic lifestyles, young adults are typically the most interested in shared housing spaces. By offering pre-furnished bedrooms, shared common spaces, and amenities such as 24/7 laundry access, cleaning services, Wi-Fi, and community events, co-living companies like Quarters want to provide Millennials with more affordable access to increasingly overpriced, metropolitan neighborhoods. Quarters’s $300 million expansion deal was made possible by a $1.1 billion fundraiser led by its parent company, Medici Living. Medici’s goal is to buy and build up to 35 co-living facilities throughout Europe, and over 1,300 new residential units in the U.S. within the next three years, according to Curbed. The Berlin-based company already operates co-living spaces in New York City and Chicago, but it plans on expanding its footprint to cities like Boston, Denver, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Diego, and Seattle—all of which are teaming with millennials and startup activity. Residential projects at these sites could house between 100 and 300 people, while new spaces in New York could hold up to 500. Like Quarters, other co-living firms have upped their ambition, diverting their attention away from small group homes to focus on large-scale high-rises. WeWork, the massive, New York-based co-working company, recently unveiled "WeLive," its latest co-living project with its first apartment building located at 110 Wall Street in Manhattan. The Manhattan high-rise, whose private studios start at $3,050 a month, offers apartment dwellers flexible leasing, access to fitness classes, cleaning and laundry services, potluck dinners, and a digital social network, all conveniently accessed through a mobile app. According to Curbed, WeLive, if successful, plans to eventually house 600 people throughout the 20 floors of the Lower Manhattan high-rise, as well as build more developments in other major U.S. cities. While co-living is not a new or innovative concept, companies like Quarters and WeWork have transformed it into a business model to take advantage of the fluctuating economy and provide young adults with a service that can make city living more affordable and hospitable.
Hot off Microsoft’s announcement that it would be creating what is essentially a $500 million affordable housing bank for the Seattle area, the founder of Facebook has unveiled a similar fund for California’s Bay Area. Through a group of businesses, nonprofits, and philanthropists, the Partnership for the Bay’s Future, which was established through the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, will invest $500 million to preserve and build affordable housing. That pledge from the Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan–led charity extends to San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Alameda, and Contra Costa counties. The move, which the fund estimates will add 8,000 new units of affordable housing while preserving an existing 175,000 units over the next five-to-ten years, comes at a dire time. As Fast Company points out, only 58,000 new units were built in the Bay Area from 2012 through 2016 even though the region added 373,000 new jobs. From that perspective, it looks like the fund won’t make much of an impact, but the backing groups are hoping that they can lay the groundwork for long-term tenant protections, rent reform, and future investments. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative revealed the Partnership for the Bay’s Future, which has already raised $260 million of its $500 million target, in a January 24 announcement. The nonprofit San Francisco Foundation joins the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Ford Foundation, Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), Facebook, Genentech, Kaiser Permanente, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. The partnership will focus primarily on its two Investment and Policy Funds. The $500 million Investment Fund, to be managed by LISC (which the release calls the “the largest nonprofit community development financial institution in the country”), will invest in projects agreed upon by other members of the partnership. Their first project? Offering a revolving line of credit, which can be repaid and borrowed against, to the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation for neighborhood development in the East Bay. The organization expects that with the investment fund’s backing, it can support the completion of six projects over the next five years. The Policy Fund, which has raised $20 million of its $40 million goal, will be used to push for legislation that preserves housing, makes building new affordable housing easier, and strengthens low-income tenant protections. The fund will be administered by the San Francisco Foundation and will offer Challenge Grants for broader projects, and smaller, technically-minded Breakthrough Grants.
After vociferous opposition from Starbucks, Amazon, and other large Seattle-based corporations last summer, the Seattle City Council voted to roll back a tax that would have raised $47 million towards building 591 units of affordable housing. Now, Microsoft has announced that it will invest $500 million for affordable housing over the next three years across King County, Washington. Seattle has been plagued by rising rents and homelessness rates as the area has grappled with a housing shortage, caused in part by inflated demand and stagnant wages. Amazon and other so-called “mega-corporations” in the city had successfully talked the government down from imposing a $500-per-employee head tax that would have funded 1,700 new units of affordable housing in May of 2018 before the watered down version of the tax was ultimately killed in June. Affordable housing and homelessness advocates, who felt that the large companies headquartered in Seattle are partially responsible for its tight housing market, saw the move as adding insult to injury. Microsoft, which is headquartered in neighboring Redmond, wouldn’t have been hit with the head tax, but the initiative sparked a dialogue between Microsoft and the business-led group Challenge Seattle. The plan, which is still being finalized, sprung out of their conversations last summer on how to close the gap in affordability in housing across the region. The $500 million will be doled out as a series of grants that Microsoft is calling “targeted investments," across three stratified tiers. The company will load $225 million at a lower-than-market rate to spur the construction of middle-income housing across six cities to the east of Seattle: Bellevue, Kirkland, Redmond, Issaquah, Renton, and Sammamish. Microsoft will be lending an additional $250 million at market rate to support the construction of low-income housing across King County. The remaining $25 million will be distributed as grants to combat homelessness in and around Seattle. As part of its announcement, Microsoft revealed that $5 million of its grant will be going towards Home Base, a program that provides legal aid to families facing eviction, and another $5 million will be used to support a new joint agency being formed between Seattle and King County to tackle homelessness. Rather than using that money to solely build housing, which Microsoft expects would only generate about 1,000 new affordable units, the tech company claims that its targeted investments have the potential to spark development of “tens of thousands” of new units. While the company doesn’t expect to make much of a return, it plans to repeat the process and reinvest the money after being repaid. While this is Microsoft’s largest philanthropic gift to date, the company’s motives likely aren’t entirely altruistic. As the New York Times noted, the company is currently riding high with nearly $136 billion in cash on hand and is in the process of renovating its 500-acre Redmond campus. Supporting the region’s housing stock is a boon to lower-income residents, but will also provide a long-term solution for potential employees the company continues to woo as it expands.
With a long history of mass-produced housing experiments going back to the 1920s Sears, Roebuck & Co. mail-order homes, and the post–World War II suburban mass- housing experiments, California has a rich legacy of prefab hits—and misses. In recent years, a new generation of builders has arrived on the scene seeking to surpass this legacy by exploiting emerging mass-customization techniques and new technologies to streamline production. But these aren’t your grandparents’ prefab units. The days of rigid space-age designs are long gone, replaced by new designs that instead focus on diverse aesthetics and material flexibility. These new designs tend toward a pervasive adaptability that not only bolsters their widespread appeal but also helps builders meet the onerous local design restrictions that define many California communities. LivingHomes, based in Santa Monica, California, offers a variety of factory-made designs for single- and multifamily units, including models designed by prominent architects and firms such as Yves Béhar, Ray Kappe, and KieranTimberlake. LivingHomes’ designs are built by its spinout firm, Plant Prefab, which focuses on construction and assembly. Founder and CEO Steve Glenn is hoping Plant Prefab will lead the way in creating a national network of home-building factories where “homes are built like airplanes” rather than as one-off works, as is currently the case. Plant Prefab bills itself as the nation’s first sustainably minded home factory, and recently garnered a $6.7 million investment from Amazon, which is looking to expand the market for the company’s Alexa smart home technologies. Seattle-based Blokable, on the other hand, pursues vertically-integrated projects with the help of their in-house development team’s business model, which seeks to treat “housing development as a service.” By controlling planning, design, and production, Blokable is able to offer turnkey development services for local nonprofits and other housing providers at a lower cost. The firm offers standardized building systems along with customizable windows, doors, and finishes in order to meet a variety of price points. Blokable has begun the development process for a 64-unit housing complex in Edmonds, Washington. The project is a partnership between Blokable, the City of Edmonds, and the nonprofit Compass Housing Alliance. At the smaller end of the building scale, Gardena, California–based Cover is working to boost the availability of backyard Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) in Los Angeles. Owing to a 2016 state law that legalized these backyard structures, Cover has developed unique zoning analysis software that can give potential clients a view of what type of ADU they can build. Cover offers sleek custom designs and uses its own modular building systems, fabricating units in a new factory in southern L.A. County. While many of these outfits are relatively new, legacy prefab designers are also making strides. Office of Mobile Design (OMD) principal Jennifer Siegal has been working at the intersection of portable architecture and housing for over two decades, pioneering a distinct approach to modular design that is flexible enough to include additions to existing buildings, as well as develop modular commercial structures. Siegal recently partnered with builder Bevyhouse and premium kitchen designer Tortoise to develop her own line of prefab ADU models and is also currently working on a modular design for the Sanderling Waldorf School in Carlsbad, California. If OMD’s continued experiments in non-housing prefab building types are any indication, factory-made structures of all types could soon make their way off the assembly line and to a community near you.