Academic journal article Cityscape

Design and Affordable American Housing

Academic journal article Cityscape

Design and Affordable American Housing

Article excerpt


Given the U.S. history of housing booms and busts and a penchant for novelty, Americans have experimented for more than two centuries with innovations and reforms that promised to produce less expensive, better quality housing for more people. These promises were sometimes marketing ploys or political rhetoric. Public programs have never provided more than 5 percent of total U.S. housing production, and the poorest citizens have often been left out. Nonetheless, the goal of expanding affordable housing has been resonant in the public and private realms, including the fields of architecture and construction.

Builders have pursued ways to economize since the late 19th century. Private philanthropists constructed "model tenements," hoping to elevate a deplorable building type with simplified designs, public health, and moral uplift. Experiments with neoteric building materials and construction systems sought to reduce production costs. States and municipalities funded cooperatives. The federal government created the first public housing for the unemployed "deserving poor" during the Great Depression-although the main concerns were job creation and support for the private sector.1

The Federal Housing Administration's (FHA's) financial supports for suburbanization joined postWorld War II (WWII) shelter magazines in promoting small, visibly modern "economy houses" for suburban workingand middle-class families-if they lived in White neighborhoods (Harris, 2013).2 Addressing the assisted low-income housing stock, President Lyndon Johnson's 1968 task forces on urban poverty and violence lambasted the shortage of good subsidized housing, yet resolutely condemned modern highrises (NCUP, 1968).

These efforts ground to a halt with President Richard Nixon's 1973 moratorium on housing and community development assistance. When federal funding for housing was reinstated, it focused principally on vouchers for private developers. New assisted housing production never again approached the level of the early 1970s. Design innovations persisted in very local and transgressive ways, however, as religious groups and community design corporations built small-scale "contextual" enclaves. By the 1980s and 1990s, urban activists had formed coalitions based on housing issues as varied as gentrification, job training, and historic preservation.

Architecture is a crucial element in achieving good housing, yet it usually plays at best a minor role in deliberations about cost and value.3 This contradiction stems in part from fundamental misconceptions. Architecture is not a matter of taste or mere aesthetics. Design quality is crucial to good affordable housing. The skillful organization of interiors, views, public areas, outdoor spaces, and even facades is especially important when budgets and square footage are at a premium (Davis, 2004; Feldman and Koch, 2004; KEA, 2006).

As many practitioners and scholars have documented, good design is not elusive or subjective.4 Four themes characterize the best practices, whatever the era, scale, aesthetic, or auspices.

1. The direct involvement of residents encourages better design. Diverse groups have asserted their distinctive needs and preferences, sometimes challenging the architects' priorities and the power of cultural norms.

2. Focused research helps designers explore alternative technologies and strategies that lower costs, set design guidelines, increase residents' satisfaction, and spur innovation.

3. Site plans are more significant than architectural styles. They orchestrate the natural environment, of course, but they also affect safety and social life, both planned and serendipitous, for residents of all ages.

4. Good site planning extends from adjacent buildings to the entire metropolitan region. People in affordable housing often need nearby jobs, shopping, transportation, childcare, good public schools, parks, cultural activities, health facilities, counseling, and other supportive services. …

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