Maurice Lim Miller says he'll use his MacArthur grant money to explore low-cost modular housing.
Courtesy John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Maurice Lim Miller says he'll use his MacArthur grant money to explore low-cost modular housing.

For the past 11 years, Maurice Lim Miller has been president and CEO of the Family Independence Initiative (FII), an Oakland, Calif.–based charity that assists low-income families by helping to strengthen their social networks so they can determine their own economic fates.

His organization currently works with around 700 families in six cities, where participants meet on a monthly basis to track each other’s progress on everything from work, school grades, personal savings, and health care. Advancement is rewarded with small amounts of cash donated by the FII, which distributes, on average, about $2,000 per family per year. This system of encouragement has resulted in participants increasing their incomes, lowering their debt and, perhaps most important, gaining more control over their lives.

For FII’s efforts, Miller was one of 23 recipients of the “genius” grants handed out in September by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Miller will receive $100,000 per year for five years, and when asked how he might spend it, Miller told The Chronicle of Philanthropy that he wanted to explore how modular housing could benefit poor people.

Miller, who once ran a community development agency that built low-cost housing, tells Builder that poor families often are caught in a Catch-22 because whatever housing subsidies they receive are based on income, so there’s a disincentive to earn more money for fear of losing their housing. And with lending practices being so rigid, it’s virtually impossible for lower-income people to qualify for a mortgage.

“What we don’t have in this country is low-income housing that’s based on something other than need,” Miller says. “We have to figure out how to change the rules and show banks and investors how these families can be good bets.”

Miller has already spoken with a private developer in Oakland that builds high-end modular homes and estimates that it can offer a modest 1,500-square-foot, three-bedroom modular home—including the lot cost—for $350,000. Assuming the down payment is subsidized and the mortgage interest is 4.5 percent, a family purchasing that home would pay $1,686 per month, which is below the average for rents in Oakland and San Francisco; or $1,400 per month if the city donated the land.

Miller believes the MacArthur grant could serve as a catalyst to attract investors to support this kind of housing through something like social benefit bonds, which have been introduced in other countries. “There are investors sitting on a lot of cash looking for someplace to put their money— someplace that will give them a return,” he says.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: San Francisco, CA.