Group Title: Affordable housing issues
Title: Affordable housing issues ; vol. 11 no. 1
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 Material Information
Title: Affordable housing issues ; vol. 11 no. 1
Series Title: Affordable housing issues
Physical Description: Serial
Language: English
Creator: Shimberg Center for Affordable Housing
Publisher: Shimberg Center for Affordable Housing
Place of Publication: Gainesville, Fla.
Publication Date: December 1999
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Bibliographic ID: UF00087009
Volume ID: VID00006
Source Institution: University of Florida
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.


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M.E. Rinker, Sr., School of Building Construction College of Architecture PO Box 115703, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL
32611-5703 TEL: (352) 392-7697 SUNCOM: 622-7697 FAX: (352) 392-4364 e-mail: AFFHSNG@NERVM.NERDC.UFL.EDU

Volume X, Number 6

December 1999

The City Design Center at the University of Illinois is in the process of preparing an "Affordable Housing Design
Catalog." The following article announcing development of the catalog appeared in the Designer/Builder: A Journal of
the Human Environment published by Fine Additions, Inc. of Santa Fe, NM and is reproduced here with
their permission.

Poor people, as well as rich ones, have a right to
well-designed housing that's culturally appropriate,
that's built of durable materials, that meets their
needs and aspirations, and that they can afford.
Based upon that fundamental assumption, the City
Design Center at the University of Illinois in Chicago
is creating the Affordable Housing Design Catalog to
bring together -first on the Internet and later in
print -the best affordable projects built in the last
fifteen years.
The catalog will demonstrate that quality afford
able housing can be produced because it has been
done, from a single unit up to multiple units; it's
been done in rural, urban, and suburban areas; it's
been done for many kinds of households; it's been
done for many kinds of cultural groups; and it's
been done by many kinds of developers -for-profit,
nonprofit, big firms, little firms.
"In order to prove it's possible to give poor
people quality housing," says Roberta Feldman,
co-founder of the City Design Center and the driving
force behind the Affordable Housing Design Catalog,
we can't use words, we can't use drawings, and we
can't use ideas. We have to show real stuff. If
you're going to convince people who have doubts
about this -and a lot of people do -you have to

prove it's possible by showing them projects that
have been built."
Anyone who has developed a quality affordable
housing project is welcome to submit their work for
inclusion in the Affordable Housing Design Catalog
by contacting the City Design Center, either by fax
(312-996-2076), e mail (, or by mail
(1301 University Hall, 601 South Morgan Street,
Chicago, IL 60607-7112).
Further information is posted on the Internet at

Design Matters

Best Practices
in Affordable Housina



Throughout its history, the US government has
shown remarkable resistance to housing the poor.
The task traditionally fell to religious and charitable
organizations. The federal government didn't get
involved until the 1930s, and then only under
duress. Even today, less than 2 percent of all Ameri
cans live in government-subsidized housing, com-
pared with close to 20 percent throughout most of
the industrialized world. "In this country, we
believe that the poor are not worthy of housing
assistance," says Feldman, a professor of architect
ture and environmental psychology at the Univer
sity of Illinois at Chicago. "We incorrectly believe
that housing is not a right, but something that's
earned through our own industriousness. People
who cannot afford housing are therefore unworthy.
It's really that simple."
In fact, the federal government did not get into
the business of providing subsidized housing until
there developed what was considered a worthy poor,
those who had lost their jobs during the Great
Depression. And the first public housing residents
not only had to be nuclear families, they had to have
jobs in order to be able to pay rent. "We didn't even
provide for the people on the bread line," Feldman
Many of the housing projects built by the federal
government in the last fifty years have been disas
ters, reinforcing official reluctance to become more
involved. Yet today there are 50 million Americans
who are under-housed: they live either in over
crowded conditions, dilapidated and unsafe house
ing, or on the street. Despite what officials describe
as a hot economy with the lowest unemployment in
thirty years, millions still can't afford a home. So the
need for affordable housing is greater than ever.

Implletus for the Catalog

The Affordable Housing Design Catalog is being
funded in part by the Fannie Mae Foundation, which
put out an RFP for university/community partner
ships that would focus on housing-based revitalize
tion. A second grant came from the Richard H.
Driehaus Foundation, whose namesake has been
attempting to promote high-quality design, not only
in the profit market but in the nonprofit sector as
well. Other private donors concerned about quality
housing for all Americans have also contributed.
The catalog is being assembled under the auspices of
the UIC Community Design Center in the College of
Architecture and the Arts, which was founded by
Feldman and co-director George Hemmens to

provide design services to those segments of the
population that are generally ignored.
Feldman came up with the idea for the catalog
after receiving an average of one to four phone calls a
month from groups around the country requesting
assistance on how to design good affordable housing.
They want to do it, but they don't know how. And
they want good examples of what has worked. When
completed in 2001, the catalog will be published on
the Internet. Plans are underway for a printed
version that will include the entire catalog plus some
reflection on the history of the design of affordable
housing, where it's going, what obstacles it faces, and
where future support will come from. "We will be
providing information on the best practices in the
design of affordable housing," she says. "I hope the
catalog will include seventy-five examples, and it
would be wonderful if we got more."
And to make sure that the Internet site is easy to
access and use for all of the possible audiences, they
have put together a user group (that includes three
nonprofit developers, a for-profit developer, three
architects, a financial person, an advocate of univer
sal accessibility, at least two residents of low-income
housing, and a real estate agent) to test its effective

Housing Designs

Since the middle of the nineteenth century, the call
for public housing has elicited three different re
sponses when it comes to design. First were those
who claimed housing design certainly matters,
provided it fell into a few acceptable models: utopian
schemes of model communities; company towns built
by industrialists who wanted to keep their workers
happy and obligated; and the Modernist models that
pushed for uniform design to promote industrial and
economic efficiency of housing. Then there are those
who, reflecting on the current deplorable conditions
of residents living in public housing, say design
doesn't make a difference. Finally there are those
who say design might matter, but it costs too much.
Lately there's been a move by HUD to reinvent
government-assisted public housing as a
mixed-income model that uses the design perspective
of the New Urbanists. They want to take poor people
who don't have jobs, put them in lovely archetypes of
small-town America where people behaved in ways
that are mythicized as good and proper, and let them
live side by side with working people who will act as
mentors and teach them to become "good working
people" as well.
"Using housing design as a means of social control
is a paternalistic concept based on a middle-class


desire to teach people how to behave like them
selves," Feldman says. This idea assumes you can
uplift the poor and teach them how to be "good,
middle-class citizens" by putting them in
middle-class types of housing, and that good house
ing will produce "good people." "This is environ
mental determinism in the extreme," she says. "But
it's worse than that, because we know that the
housing and the physical environment cannot cure
the real problems of poverty, which are not having
enough money and being victimized by discrimina
It's time, Feldman believes, to reframe the debate
and commit to developing well-designed affordable
housing that responds to the needs and aspirations
of its occupants, not its designers. It must respond
to diverse cultures, many of which use space very
differently than the idealized American nuclear
family. It must respond to diverse types of families,
like singles, single-headed households, unrelated
adults, extended families, and seniors, for which the
private market is not providing affordable housing.
And despite some vague democratic ideal of equal
ity, it must recognize that no single model is going
to fit all needs.

Design Considerations

"Designers of affordable housing need to make it
adaptable to changing families and changing capa
abilities Feldman says. One of the reasons people
move as frequently as they do -on average about
once every five years -is to find housing that meets
their changing needs and abilities. But since poor
people cannot afford to move, designers need to
create housing that's adaptable. "One of the most
brilliant things about the first Levittown houses that
made them so affordable was that they were easily
expandable. From the beginning they were de
signed so you could finish the attic, enclose the
carport, or add a room to the rear as you needed
more space," she says.
"There are ways to design rooms so they are less
specific in how they have to be used," Feldman says.
For example, the good old Victorian flat always had
one of its three bedrooms next to the living room or
dining room. That wonderful, ambiguous space
actually turns out to be quite flexible, because you
can use it as a bedroom, a study, or a live/work
room where clients can come in off the street and not
penetrate into the deeper, more private areas of the
Homes should be designed to provide for changes
in our physical capabilities. In many Scandinavian
homes, for example, the kitchen cabinets can be
removed and the countertops lowered to accommo

date a wheelchair without having to move out or call
in a contractor for a big renovation. "We have not
been very creative in this country about how to
adapt an environment that is universally accessible
without stigmatizing the people who live there,"
Feldman says. "We either require the bathroom
grab bars to be there, which, frankly, people don't
like to see when they're well, or else we don't put
them in at all. Under the best of circumstances a
certain percentage of handicapped-accessible units
are required by local law, when in fact every unit
should be made accessible. My colleagues complain
that the federal Americans with Disabilities Act
regulations cramp their creativity. On the contrary, I
think it's an opportunity for designers to prove they
are creative enough to provide beautiful spaces that
are accessible to everyone."
In addition, Feldman believes that affordable
housing designers need to assure the physical
well-being of the residents of their housing by
creating hazard-free indoor environments and
crime-resistant exterior ones. "I also believe that we
must take seriously the environmental consequences
of how we design and build," Feldman says. "We
have to think about such issues as energy and
resource sustainability. We cannot keep wasting our
world's resources. The impacts of building afford
able housing are no different from that of any other
type of building."

Existing Buildings

One way is to recycle existing buildings into
dwelling units, she says. There's no reason to tear
down a building once a landlord has abandoned it.
"My heart weeps when I go into the West Side of
Chicago, where there was so much incredibly
beautiful Victorian stone and brick housing," she
says. "Now it looks like Beirut! We've pulled it
down. We absolutely see no value in it. These are
gorgeous buildings that actually have floor plans
that make a lot of sense for flexibility. They're
solidly built, yet we're pulling them down. I think
one of the answers to affordable housing is preserve
ing the old and reusing it. And it doesn't mean that
housing has to just come from old houses; it can
come from all sorts of other types of wonderful
buildings that lend themselves to adaptive reuse

Aestlheic Quality

Another issue facing affordable housing designers
is the question of aesthetic quality when beauty is in
the eyes of the beholder. When designing for a
specific group of people, architects need some

understanding about what the clients consider to be
beautiful. Too often the designer assumes that
everyone will like what he or she like.
Developers also confuse aesthetics with
increased expense. But using paint or different
colors of brick creatively does not substantially
change a project's cost. "If you can introduce more
than one color you can create a tremendous amount
of visual interest on a building's facade," she says.
"And when Mike Pyatok adds a simple wooden
trellis it makes the building look more lush."


Finally, and perhaps most importantly,
affordable housing has to be affordable to the user.
The first way is to lower initial construction costs.
"There are ways to get construction costs
down significantly without compromising quality,"
Feldman says, which could begin by eliminating
literally tons of construction waste left over after the
construction of an average single-family home. "In
terms of design, Levitt's plan wasted no space by
virtually eliminating hallways. Then he built into

his final product opportunities for future expansion.
The dilemma in this, of course, is that when you are
working with the very poor, even a can of paint is
difficult to purchase."
Another way to make homes more afford
able is assuring lower lifetime operating and mainte
nance costs. If a home is built of poor materials and
starts to fall apart within a few years, the
low-income resident will not be able to keep it up. If
it doesn't have good windows, adequate insulation,
or a high-efficiency furnace, the occupants won't be
able to pay the gas bill to keep it warm.
"I realize that people may treat a lot of our
expectations for improving the quality of affordable
housing as pie in the sky," Feldman admits. "They
might say it's all well intentioned, but that I'm
asking for too much: governments won't let it
happen; it's going to cost too much; we won't find
people to design it or build it, etc., etc. It may sound
great, but it won't happen. If I believed that I never
would have begun this effort. I think when we're
finished the Affordable Housing Design Catalog will
prove the nay-sayers wrong."

Affordable Housing ISSUES is prepared bi-monthly by the Shimberg Center for Affordable Housing for the purpose of
discussing contemporary issues facing affordable housing providers. Reproduction of this newsletter is both permitted and
encouraged. Comments or questions regarding the content are welcome and should be addressed to Robert C. Stroh, Director.

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