Sunday, April 26, 2015

Affordable Housing: Smaller isn’t necessarily cheaper, but shared equity homeownership can make it more accessible and sustainable

The National Planning Conference was held in Seattle this past week, and as reported by City Lab, affordability and equity were among the most talked about subjects. Attendees packed the room to hear from the planning director of New York and San Francisco on how to make housing more affordable, but they were ultimately left without any quick fix solution to this heavy-weight issue.

"The shortfall of affordable housing arguably would take 50 years to fill at the current rate of production in San Francisco—the very frustration expressed by Rahaim. It might take 25 years in New York City. But betting it all on increasing supply is fraught, too. It’s expensive to build in the city, and costlier still to build increased height and density without considering the needed infrastructure to support those kinds of environments."

But what about micro-housing? Can’t we make housing more affordable by making in smaller and more efficient? Nowhere has this concept been more readily adopted than Seattle with 780 units cleared for occupancy and 1,598 more units on the way. But this hip alternative has proven not to be an answer in and of itself.

"The trend toward micro-housing—super small living spaces, some with shared kitchens—hasn’t been the affordability solution once envisioned. Smaller isn’t necessarily cheaper in these hot markets.”

This is a very valid point, but not necessarily a dead-end. Micro-housing on its own only suggests a physical change in our housing—from excess to compact. And while this greatly reduces our environmental footprint, the shift does not necessarily correlate economically. For example, a 200 square foot unit in Seattle still goes for $1,000/month. And so the base price for any space at all in a hot market is still unaffordable to a large sector of the population.

If the conventional model of rentership is carried over—maintaining the modern privacy, anonymity, and exclusive use among neighbors—little is likely to change in terms of affordability. Some, such as Seattle’s “aPodments” development, have pivoted in the direction of sharing resources—

"At the time, the city allowed up to eight unrelated people to live in one “dwelling” with a shared kitchen. The code didn’t say the rooms had to be tied together as a single unit, so Potter built a cross between an apartment building and a boardinghouse, where someone could rent a sleeping room as small as 100 square feet with a private bath and share a kitchen with up to seven others renters."

While this concept may be novel in juxtaposition to today’s limited housing variety, it's really just rebranding the layout of  residential hotels—a once popular affordable housing option in the private market that outnumbered the stock of public housing until the 1990’s. 


Source: The Seattle Times

Micro-housing evokes images of smaller apartments within a larger building, whereas tiny house village evokes images of miniature little homes clustered on a common plot of land—again, it’s a physical alteration. But there is also a social dimension to these concepts—the fact that several people are living so close together. 

Isolated renters will always be at the mercy of the speculative landlord, but if we were to allow neighbors to organize democratically, spreading costs and risks more broadly amongst a group rather than on the shoulders of each individual, that is where we might begin to find truly accessible and sustainable housing. 

This is where I was intrigued to learn—from the APA conference mentioned above—that both New York and San Francisco are exploring shared equity homeownership models at the municipal level. I say this because these are the very models I stumbled upon in researching an affordable housing model for the tiny house community I’m currently working on, Emerald Village (see the Project Overview here).

Shared equity homeownership offers a viable alternative to the two common choices of traditional ownership and renting. It includes community land trusts (CLTs), limited equity cooperatives (LECs), and CLT-LEC Hybrids (tons of information on these models here).

"At their core, shared equity models are defined as follows: resale-restricted, owner-occupied housing where the “bundle” of property rights is divided between the homeowner and the community. The subdivision of building and land rights allows households to access affordable ownership opportunities and enables the community—via a non-profit steward—to retain a stake in the land, maintaining permanent affordability and mitigating speculative market forces.” (Ehlenz)

Smaller isn’t necessarily cheaper, but if we link it with more innovative ownership models—this is how we can begin to make housing more affordable.

2 comments:

  1. I love the idea of tiny houses. I am a contractor at roofing companies Maryland. This is always in trend that how to make housing more affordable. Thanks for sharing this post.

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  2. I own land (28 acres and 240 acres respectively) at Ute Lake in New Mexico that could be a small unit community. If a builder is willing to offer models, maybe something can be worked out. Steve @ stevonmfl@gmail.com

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