The 20K Initiative was launched by architecture students at Auburn University’s Rural Studio in 2005 as a project that planned to design an incredibly affordable home for $20,000. But, Fast Company's Adele Peters says the company has learned a lot since the project began over ten years ago, and sees that housing affordability is much bigger picture issue than they originally assumed.
“What we’ve learned, over the almost decade and a half that we’ve been working on this little project, is that the issues around housing affordability are not brick and mortar problems,” says Rusty Smith, associate director of Rural Studio.
Instead, making a single-family home affordable is a classic wicked problem, with tentacles that reach into all aspects of the economy. The team found issues with credit and credit education. There were issues in the mortgage market. There were problems with permitting and zoning, and the process of hiring and using a contractor. There were also all of the secondary costs that come after purchasing a house, from insurance costs and maintenance to energy use. “There’s this huge network of parts that are not particularly integrated with each other,” says Smith. “They’re all in the domains of different areas of interest and expertise, and none of them kind of connect together. That disconnection is one of the many ways that really contributes to the complexity of what homeownership costs.”
The partners will spend the next three years piloting new programs that can drive the cost of housing down, and some of the partners–from Habitat for Humanity and other nonprofits to contractors who want to sell the houses–will work on bringing them to market. “That third year the goal is to be able to sort of turn it loose to whoever wants it and whoever needs it and whoever can afford it,” he says. Notably, Rural Studio said in 2016 that it hoped to provide the plans for the houses as soon as possible, for free. But it now believes that it needs to provide a fuller set of solutions beyond just a blueprint to create a truly affordable home.
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