Affordable Housing: Clarity Behind the Complex

Affordable Housing: Clarity Behind the Complex

By Shakari McGill

Shakari McGill is an intern at Verdical Group who is currently pursuing his Master of Building Science at the University of Southern California. The USC Masters of Building Science program requires that all students develop a building-science-related topic that will ultimately cumulate in a published thesis. Shakari decided to focus on the urban heat island effect and its impact on disadvantaged communities. Using simulations from programs like HEED, his ultimate goal is to develop a repository of Energy Conservation Measures (ECMs) that will be coined the “Kit of Parts.” This Kit is intended to give patrons of these communities more equity in knowledge and more leverage in adequate housing. During his time at Verdical Group, Shakari gathered additional information on sustainable construction methods for this very purpose. Because the nature of this “Kit of Parts” aims to improve quality discrepancies in housing, it is important to understand how these discrepancies arise.

When it comes to housing, to begin to understand the issues at hand one must first look at the nature of the market and the way it is organized. Similar to a doughnut, it consists of an outer ring —  which encompasses government-backed housing programs and projects for low-income individuals and families — and an inner ring — which contains resources for middle class individuals who have been “priced out” of the market, along with a variety of other hindrances.

The outer ring of the doughnut is larger than the inner ring and, therefore, more resources are dedicated to low-income initiatives; less focus exists for middle class individuals and families who have income but still lack access to housing. A full and just overhaul of the housing landscape will require equitable accounting for all roots of housing inequality.

One important example is multifamily housing, which currently lacks a widespread system that addresses socio-economic issues, such as employment assistance and childcare opportunities – both of which can interfere with and limit work schedules, ultimately leading to  individuals being priced out of a local housing market. Meanwhile, the inner ring of the doughnut includes resources for employed individuals who are living in their vehicles. These provisions make it easier and safer for these individuals to live in their vehicles, but do little to solve the overarching problem of astronomical property rates (Crane, 2017).

The fact that the market is flawed does not exist due to a lack of effort: Many organizations are currently researching solutions. Additional efforts have been made to keep rent affordable in places like Boulder, Colorado, which introduced BAR (Boulder Affordable Rental) vouchers (Partners, n.d.). This is an important step, but these housing vouchers are hard to obtain and, even more importantly, the units are too few in number – an issue faced by most affordable housing programs.

So while no one solution can completely solve inequality in housing, this proposal seeks to combine the best of existing efforts to create a universally applicable “Kit of Parts.” My hope is that the Kit will create affordable housing that could be put up quickly, house more individuals comfortably, and apply to any locale, even those with existing construction. Before diving into the specifics of the Kit, I would be remiss not to mention that housing is such a multifaceted issue that the Kit (while multipronged in its approach) would also not fully address every issue associated with today’s housing market. To truly see widespread effects occur, policy changes (specifically related to availability and rent control) need to be addressed in conjunction.

Initially, this kit will be developed by observing scores of housing projects to find common issues and partnering with groups conducting similar research. These could include, but are not  limited to: thermal comfort, crime, maintenance, energy efficiency, green spaces, proximity to transportation, site health, availability of healthy food, homeless rehabilitation, and responsiveness of authorities. Categorization of the most prevalent issues will take place from there and will coincide with categories from LEED v4 such as: indoor environmental quality, materials & resources, and water efficiency. The resulting Kit will consist of a multitude of interrelated parts parts compiled from previous research, all of which will be possible solutions to the most common issues gathered from the study. Products of the Kit will include:

  • Solar panels
  • Non-electric sewage treatment tanks
  • Ground source heat pumps
  • Solar water heaters
  • Lit corridors
  • Grey water systems
  • Homelessness mitigation programs
  • LED Lighting
  • Pedestrian lighting
  • Exclusively rent controlled properties
  • Light shelves
  • ENERGY Efficient appliances
  • Onsite employment opportunities
  • Affordable unit quotas/mandates
  • Thermal mass utilization
  • Smart curtains
  • Energy efficient HVAC
  • Child care opportunities
  • Green roof/white roof
  • Rent vouchers

I will create a categorized matrix to help decision-makers determine which products from the Kit of Parts will best serve the specific needs of a given project.

The intention is to make the Kit applicable to any existing structures and new construction and to make areas safer, more inclusive, more efficient and more dignified. Funding for this Kit will be achieved through increased energy efficiency; the short payback periods on these efficiency efforts; savings realized through the use of less wasteful, energy conserving products; and working in conjunction with existing programs and organizations such as The Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities’ (OSHC) Sustainable Housing Initiative (SHI) and Sustainable Communities Initiative (SCI).

SHI strives to “advance energy efficiency, green building and sustainable design in affordable housing. SHI also works in partnership with a diverse group of organizations and stakeholders: multifamily property owners, Public Housing Authorities, state and local recipients of formula and competitive grants, and private-sector lenders and developers” (US Department of Housing, 2012). SHI provides “retrofits to existing housing, supports energy-efficient new construction, and promotes financing mechanisms to reduce energy use in HUD-assisted affordable housing and private market developments (US Department of Housing, 2012).”  SCI “stimulates a pioneering approach to community development to enhance U.S. competitiveness. Through two forward-thinking grant programs, HUD’s SCI encourages integrated regional planning to guide state, metropolitan, and local investments in job creation, transportation, and housing, and helps regions and localities undertake new approaches to community planning (US Department of Housing, 2012).” These methods will create a revenue stream that will contribute to the construction of new properties and retrofits for existing structures.

To combat the high demand (and potential inequality) this Kit may create, a push for making construction and land cheaper must occur. According to a study conducted in Washington D.C.: “Except for at the top of the market, the price of land per unit wipes out projects that have and rent constraints (Blumenthal, McGinty, & Pendall, 2016).” The Kit itself has no way to mediate this and, as such, change in this realm will have to occur on a policy level. However, the Kit can help offset land costs by advising quick erection methods, conserving construction materials for re-use, and planning small but programmatically enjoyable units.

With various aspects in mind, this proposal seeks to demonstrate how the best efforts of existing work and research can be combined to create a  universally applicable “Kit of Parts.” While not singularly able to solve our housing crisis, this Kit is a step toward making affordable housing more available and more inclusive for the homeless, improving the performance of existing housing structures, and increasing the economic and socio-economic opportunities they offer to their patrons. The system discussed consists of several inter-related, previously compiled parts and will take advantage of its short payback periods, energy efficiency, and incentives of outside organizations to secure funding. The money saved from these endeavors will contribute to the construction of new units and retrofits and help to offset construction and land costs. Due to the growth in awareness of the housing crisis, more initiatives are being taken to mitigate issues associated with it; hopefully with time this will continue to breed policy change. With better policies in place, this system can help bolster proposed improvements and, ultimately, help solve the inequities we see today.