Denise Dersin, Editor in Chief,
Anje Jager/ Denise Dersin, Editor in Chief,

You know your industry’s crisis has hit the big time when the Museum of Modern Art in New York mounts an exhibit about it. Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream, which opened on Feb. 15 and will be on display through July, is an exploration of new architectural (and financial) possibilities in the wake of the housing recession. Five interdisciplinary teams, including architects, urban planners, economists, and others, were charged with reimagining existing forms of homeownership and living, working, and commuting in America’s suburbs. Each team focused on a different region of the country, specifically suburbs of New York, Chicago, Tampa, Fla., Los Angeles, and Portland, Ore. All had significant rates of foreclosures but possess a wide variety of population and transportation situations.

The teams challenged the fundamental premise of the American Dream. Their hypothesis was, “Change the dream and you change the city.” The dream was defined as “personal ownership of a single-family home on a swath of green lawn, an investment that once guaranteed stability and a legacy for the next generation.” For a long time, the American Dream has included an array of dwelling styles and modes of ownership, from duplexes to huge multifamily buildings, and from condos and co-ops to co-housing. Nevertheless, the starting point for this exercise was the standard single-family detached model.

The resulting proposals, presented here in the barest of terms, offer very different “solutions” to the various problems of the chosen sites. The team working on Keizer, Ore., imagined a “Nature City,” where a 200-acre big-box retail site would be transformed by urban farms, sky gardens, and restored native habitats in and around a variety of housing types at varying affordability levels. The fix for Orange, N.J., a town with a robust transit system but with a high rate of unemployment, involves building a network of mixed-use structures in the middle of what are now secondary streets, giving the municipality more dwellings and businesses and, hence, a larger tax base. Rialto, Calif.’s proposal takes a failed subdivision in the Inland Empire and remakes it into a variegated mix of housing types, living situations, and landscapes. The team working on Temple Terrace, Fla., a former combination of suburb and orange grove, came up with an idea for a new town center, complete with government buildings, business opportunities, and three different types of housing.

The fifth proposal, developed by a team led by renowned architect Jeanne Gang, offers some new housing choices for Cicero, Ill. Cicero, famous for being Al Capone’s base of operations, now has a population that is 80 percent Latino, half of them foreign born. As Gang writes in a New York Times op-ed piece, the housing stock there is mostly single-family detached homes. Unable to afford the homes individually, five or six families will move into one bungalow, creating tension in the neighborhood and hastening falling real estate values. The team’s answer is to take abandoned factories in the town, remediate them, and turn them into residential properties with the land and shared spaces owned by a community land trust. The for-sale units within the buildings, which would be multigenerational and adaptable in size to respond to residents’ changing needs, could be sold back to the trust when the owners move.

The exhibit does not presume that any of the proposals will be built. They are a little farther out there than zoning—or reality—will allow. With that in mind, you might want to take a look at some of the concepts and see if there’s any part of them that can be adapted for use in the real world. Since there were no builders on the teams, I think it’s up to you to figure out what can actually be done to change what’s being built to reflect our country’s changing circumstances and needs. I welcome your suggestions.

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