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Improving Affordable Housing, Part 1

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      Learning Lab for Improving Affordable Housing, 10/30/2013
      Theme: Equity

      I spent last Wednesday discussing the intersections of design, equity, and affordable housing with a group of people focused on improving the lot of affordable housing. MSR’s clients Aeon and Hope Communities organized the event. MSR is working on a $22 million, 90-dwelling unit mixed affordable and market rate housing project for these clients at the intersection of Franklin Avenue and Portland Avenue in Minneapolis. Our clients’ ambitious goals include building a cohesive community of residents, net zero energy use, and achieving Petal Recognition from the Living Building Challenge, all while designing a building prototype for a better way of providing affordable housing. But the issue of equity in all of its many dimensions remains foundational to all of these ambitions.

      Equity has many definitions. The Living Building Challenge divides the Equity Petal into three parts: Human Scale + Humane Places, Democracy + Social Justice, and Rights to Nature. Most dictionaries have a seemingly tighter definition centered on fairness and justice in our human relationships. Famously, Martin Luther King said: “…where there is injustice for one there is injustice for all.” Not really a definition; but more of a declaration of the principal of equity. I particularly like a more broad based definition that combines means and methods, ambitions and results: in order to have true equity, we need inclusionary processes that lead to broad-based results that balance individual and community health, educational opportunities, environmental factors, living standards, access to healthy food, clean water and air, self-determination and fair access to job opportunities.

      At the table Wednesday were folks from institutional investors, policy influencers, sustainable design resources, social scientists, a couple of affordable housing gurus, and several affordable housing advocacy groups all talking about equity. It is an inspiring group of folks and a good wonkish group to advance the state of affordable housing.

      Chris Velasco, president of PLACE (an ethical nonprofit building sustainable communities) stated that one of the most important tasks for us to accomplish is to understand how we can bring highly sustainable housing principles down to the cost structures available for affordable housing. To paraphrase Gina Ciganik, vice president of housing development at Aeon, we need to do so in a way that is affordable and replicable across the industry in order for this to be equitable and useful to our industry. Amy McCullough of Local Initiatives Support Corporation talked about the need to make equity applicable outside of our community by making our gained knowledge available to a wide audience by providing the vision and tools for others to learn from our success and failures. Finally, Billy Webber, senior research fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Sustainable Building Research, stated that we each can contribute to an equitable community by understanding and taking into consideration affordability, housing choices, access to services, and location as we think about our projects.

      To sum up, as Sunshine Mathon, design and development director of Foundation Communities (a nonprofit affordable housing provider in Austin, Texas), said: “We need to think about how the actions taken serve those who are served.” Truly, this objective is at the core of what we are trying to achieve in the affordable housing world. What are we making available to everyone, regardless of income or ability? How is equity best achieved for the greatest number of people? And finally, who gets to define equity and validate that we have gotten there?

      Some days the potential in design is as rich as the solutions. Wednesday was one of those days.

    • Participants in the October 30, 2013, Learning Lab
    • Participants in the October 30, 2013, Learning Lab
    • About the Author

      Paul C.N. Mellblom

      • Architect / Principal
      • paul@msrdesign.com
      • 612 209 7787
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