Affordable Housing is a Public Good

Affordable Housing is a Public Good

We are experiencing a housing crisis. I emphasize the word ‘we’ because it’s a crisis that impacts everyone. Even if you have a place to go home to, you’ve certainly witnessed a city marred by its effects. While the nation is experiencing record housing shortages, Oregon has seen some of the highest increases in rates of people experiencing homelessness. In response the Governor has made housing a priority, setting a goal of 36,000 units per year and proposing a bill that would allocate $500 million for the land, infrastructure, and utilities required for this scale of development. Adjacent to this legislative flurry rages a decades-old debate over the high cost of affordable housing and its causes. Upfront I’ll say that, while sometimes charged with alarming vitriol, it’s an important debate to continually have as funding and construction methods change over time. But the debate is only important so long as it leads to improved systems for delivering high-quality, affordable housing to those who need it. We must not lose sight of what’s important while the pressure builds to fast-track more housing because I believe there’s a real risk of creating larger, more long-term problems through short-sighted action.

For almost a decade now, I’ve worked with talented teams of professionals designing affordable housing and I can recognize a red herring when I hear it. Arguments like “We’re trying to solve too many other problems with housing” or “Too much money is being spent on aesthetics” give me pause for the following reasons:

Red Herring 1: We’re trying to solve too many other problems with housing.

We know that the building industry is responsible for 42% of global CO2 emissions and climate scientists agree that if we limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2100, we have a shot at staving off increased famine, hunger, drought, and other catastrophes. The bad news is that with current government pledges, we can expect an increase of 2.1 degrees Celsius by that time. Considering we’re not going to single-handedly solve the climate crisis with housing, all new housing development still must do as much as possible to avoid further degradation to our shared environment.

When we started collaborating with Our Just Future to design The Aurora, an affordable family-oriented housing project in East Portland, sustainability was a shared goal, and the team prioritized decisions meant to mitigate the building’s carbon footprint. Some of these measures had larger upfront costs but valuable long-term savings like a rooftop PV solar array that provides power for all household plug loads, a heat recovery ventilation system to reduce energy demands, and heat pump hot water heaters which eliminated gas service to the building, significantly reduced the building’s operational carbon footprint. Other measures had smaller upfront costs but outsized long-term impacts, like reducing the amount of concrete and steel used in the structural system and sourcing materials from local manufacturers when possible (All the wood framing, brick cladding, and interior paint were sourced from factories within 500 miles of the job site). These measures, along with things like a highly efficient thermal envelope and energy-efficient fixtures, helped the building exceed its targeted EUI goal of 30% and earn a (projected) Earth Advantage Multifamily Platinum certification. When compared to 7 other recent multifamily projects in our office, it significantly outperformed in terms of estimated whole-life carbon footprint.

Red Herring 2: Too much is being spent on aesthetics.

Many critics argue that quickly producing enough affordable housing to meet demand requires de-emphasizing aesthetics (and the processes that ensure them) in favor of efficiency. I don’t think many people would argue against the concept of building quick housing for those who need it, but the idea that an emphasis on aesthetics somehow prevents this creates a false dichotomy.

But first, what do people mean when talking about aesthetics in architecture? I suspect for many it’s illustrated by fashionable buildings that stand out in sharp contrast to their contexts and draw attention to the personal philosophies of their designers instead of the communities that live around and within them. At Holst, this idea is at odds with our core values. We believe that a building must respond to its context and aim to improve the site by essentially becoming a neighborhood asset. This is done through careful consideration of relevant cultural and historical factors which can translate to decisions about the material palette and shape of a building. In a way, we see aesthetic expression as a thoughtful interpretation of a place which is necessary to create a beautiful building that lasts because it’s loved.

At The Aurora, it would’ve been easy (and cheaper) to copy the type of housing that’s ubiquitous in the area: mostly 3-4 story suburban apartment buildings, much of it characterless and in need of repair. But the design team was sensitive to the fact that for many who live in the community, these buildings are evidence of being overlooked when it comes to meaningful public investment. Our Just Future envisioned a building that would improve its environment and communicate quality and longevity by forgoing affordable cladding materials like fiber cement siding. Brick was chosen for its durability and perceived aesthetic value and care was taken to develop a façade that leveraged its permanence while creating a humane and welcoming street frontage. Other design measures taken included widening the existing 6-foot sidewalk along a very busy street to almost 25 feet in width and providing a buffer from traffic by adding planters full of local, drought-tolerant vegetation, bike parking, and a ramp for accessibility. This area is also decorated with subtle elements like awnings and steel fascia to provide visual interest and rain protection for people using the public space. Additionally, large openings to the interior of the building were designed to communicate warmth and a sense of welcome to passersby, and signage was developed by minority-led branding firm Odd Notion which used inspiration from the beloved Su Casa Super Mercado across the street to show respect for the neighborhood.

There are more arguments often leveled at affordable housing developments by their critics. I’m not addressing them all here because I want to promote a specific way of viewing affordable housing that focuses on its ability to improve the fabric of our collective environment. But it should also be noted that these buildings do so much to transform the lives of those in them. Studies show that housing can dramatically affect the health outcomes of individuals which should certainly be celebrated and championed. Everyone deserves high-quality affordable housing without exception.

Earlier I made the claim that choosing between efficiency and aesthetics is a false dichotomy. This is because I believe that continued innovation and technological advancements can offer new possibilities for building affordable housing that is beautiful, heals communities and the environment, and is efficient to produce (think prefabricated and CLT construction). There will always be significant financial investment required to do this, but it’s necessary if we’re going to create cities that are both equitable and in harmony with nature. Instead of taking short-sighted action, I believe we must work on gathering the political will to better fund high-quality, affordable housing because we’re not just building for those that dwell in them (although a worthy goal itself), but we’re building so that we can improve the cities we live in and the communities we share. We’re building because affordable housing is a public good.

Up Next