Angela Brooks
Courtesy Brooks + Scarpa Architects Angela Brooks

Today, our vulnerable populations are most at risk from the COVID-19 pandemic. Low-paid service workers and the homeless are often unable to maintain a healthy social distance from others, much less have the capacity to self-quarantine. They, like everyone else, need adequate housing to keep themselves and their greater communities safe.

Because housing is not seen as a basic right guaranteed by the U.S. government, affordable housing—defined as costing less than 30% of household income—comprises a complicated patchwork of programs that vary widely across states. Inefficiencies in funding mechanisms, building systems, infrastructure, and policy could be improved if a national housing act could be started from scratch.

In the Netherlands, the National Housing Act of 1902 was based on the premise that housing is a shared national responsibility: a right, and not a privilege. Similar legislation in this country could streamline our ability to provide housing for more people and address the inequities remaining from our history of redlining and from lack of social capital, a term coined about two decades ago to describe shared values and fairness of public programs for everyone—not just a few, and not just the wealthy.

Despite what NIMBYists may claim, housing affordability does not lessen the value of neighborhoods. Instead, it strengthens them.

Despite what NIMBYists may claim, housing affordability does not lessen the value of neighborhoods. Instead, it strengthens them, as studies by urban planners, social scientists, and nonprofit organizations such as Enterprise Community Partners and the Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute have shown. Neighborhoods are more resilient when we invest in social capital. If everyone had access to safe and clean shelter, healthy food, local economic opportunities, and quality schools, infrastructure, and services—provisions that benefit everyone—neighborhoods would be more adept in overcoming health crises, natural disasters, and chronic challenges such as air pollution, because people at all income levels could live closer to their work and have better access to critical services, which would improve their health. A healthier and more proximate workforce can better strengthen local businesses and provide a reliable tax base that supports neighborhood schools.

Absent a national housing model, plenty can be done at the local level—though hurdles exist there as well. In Los Angeles, where homeless populations are surging, county and state funding is available to develop affordable housing. However, we cannot build quickly or cheaply enough due to impediments at the policy level. Dense housing is prohibited in the industrial zone of the downtown core and by the abysmally low allowable floor area ratios (FAR) of every commercial boulevard, thanks to Proposition U, which passed in 1986 and halved the allowable FAR from 3:1 to 1.5:1. Zoning must be changed to incentivize—not prohibit—housing. Affordable housing must be allowed “by-right.”

Step Up on 5th, designed by Brooks+Scarpa Architects.
John Linden At Step Up on Fifth, in Santa Monica, Calif., Brooks + Scarpa Architects achieved a density of 245 units per acre on a 50-foot-by-150-foot infill lot. A national AIA COTE Award winner, the project features 46 micro-apartments that all serve as affordable housing units for formerly homeless adults with mental and physical disabilities.

Architects can and should collaborate with planners, city officials, politicians, and policymakers to tailor zoning to new uses and new ways of living. Making connections between disparate elements to create a comprehensive whole is what we do. Design can promote social change.

We can use our talents to show developers and skeptics alike how higher density, reduced parking, and more open space can contribute to complete streets and livable cities. We can collaborate with city leaders on demonstration projects and research proposals to solve seemingly intractable problems. Throughout history, successful leaders have shared the common characteristics of empathy, a willingness to take risk, a collaborative spirit, and a respect for humanity.

Ultimately, humanity is our client. Our profession’s success depends on our ability to lead on behalf of the greater good and to help those underserved by society. We are stronger—and more relevant—when we are connected to the lives of everyone and the space of the everyday.

The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.

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