June 10, 2008
by: Jessica Sheridan Assoc. AIA LEED AP

Event: Designs for Living: Panel Discussion on Housing Policy
Location: Center for Architecture, 06.02.08
Speakers: Victor Bach — Senior Housing Policy Analyst, Community Service Society of New York; Kermit Baker, PhD, Hon. AIA — Senior Research Fellow, Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, Project Director, Remodeling Futures Program, & Chief Economist, AIA National; Christopher Jones — Vice President for Research, Regional Plan Association & Former Special Assistant to the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Development in NYC; Ronald Shiffman, FAICP, Hon. AIA — Professor of Urban Planning, Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment, Pratt Institute & Former Director, Pratt Center for Community Development
Moderator: Wids DeLaCour, AIA — Co-Chair, AIANY Housing Committee
Organizer: AIANY Housing Committee
Sponsors:Champion: Studio Daniel Libeskind; Supporters: Gensler; HumanScale; James McCullar & Associates; Friends: Benjamin Moore & Co.; Costas Kondylis & Partners; Forest City Ratner Companies; Frank Williams & Associates; Hugo S. Subotovsky Architects; Ingram Yuzek Gainen Carroll & Bertolotti; Mancini Duffy; Magnusson Architecture and Planning; Rawlings Architects; Ricci Greene Associates; Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; Syska & Hennessy; Trespa North America; Universal Contracting Group

For the last 60 years housing patterns have been driven by post-war development. Now, with upcoming local and national elections, the state of the economy, and poor living conditions for low-income households, it is time to re-examine policies, infrastructure, and land-use. So argued Christopher Jones, vice president for research at the Regional Plan Association (RPA) at a recent discussion about housing trends.

The way people live has changed drastically since 1940, said Kermit Baker, PhD, Hon. AIA, senior research fellow at Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, and AIA’s chief economist, using data collected for the 1940 and 2005 Census surveys. Pre-WWII, homes cost an average of $41,000, and half of housing units had either no indoor plumbing or shared facilities. In 2005, homes cost an average of $159,000 — a fourfold increase — with one bathroom per bedroom. In 1940, less than 40% of the population owned homes compared with more than 68% in 2005, thanks in large part to an increase in sub-prime mortgages (“and now we are paying the price,” stated Baker). Today, fewer than one-third of Caucasians live in inner cities, yet 60% of minority renters live in city centers that lack access to good schools, common amenities, and better paying jobs. No place in the U.S. does the minimum wage equal the housing wage, the hourly wages needed to afford a “decent” home. In some cities such as NYC, LA, and San Francisco, the housing wage is equal to five times the minimum wage.

NYC is a case study to speculate about the affordability crisis and examine solutions, argued Victor Bach, senior housing policy analyst for the Community Service Society of New York. Only 20% of those who fit the federal definition of poverty live in subsidized housing, and figures are worsening. Rapid population growth will put a high demand on the housing market and low-income residents will have more difficulty competing for housing. The National Housing Trust Fund, National Housing Law Project for housing preservation, and Mayor Bloomberg’s affordable housing plans are steps in the right direction, Bach believes. But outside of the housing sector, the city can develop policies that will provide cash transfers and relief to those who need to pay for residual costs besides rent.

In NYC, Jones sees opportunity at federal, state, and local levels to improve the housing situation. Nationally, a new transportation plan must be developed to aid congestion and reduce carbon emissions, and the government should encourage and preserve rental housing. Locally, transit-oriented development (TOD) needs to be improved alongside “inclusionary zoning” so infrastructure and housing can develop symbiotically. Also, state housing trust funds should be dedicated to improve affordable housing. Baker is convinced that cleaning up current mortgage lending markets, promoting increased sustainability, and preserving and upgrading existing housing (rather than constructing new buildings) will abate the crisis.

The U.S. is one of few countries that have not ratified a human rights agreement calling for a right to housing, pointed out Ronald Shiffman, FAICP, Hon. AIA, professor of urban planning at the Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment, Pratt Institute. With current elections at hand, architects and planners have the opportunity to influence future policies and make a difference. The AIA can push Congress to act to make housing a priority. As architects and planners, we should also be taking our personal standards beyond the government’s. We should adopt smart housing location criteria, set up guidelines for all new houses to be carbon neutral by 2010, encourage high densities (but not so high that they overwhelm infrastructure), and make sure we do not contribute to the discrimination of people’s right to housing.


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