Bridge Housing Affordability Gap with Urban Design

With national economic growth, construction crews are banging and buzzing as they piece together future high rises. Despite economic growth, affordability has significantly decreased for several U.S. metro cities such as Dallas, Houston and Los Angeles. Middle class renters are increasingly squeezed out, banished to suburban life and long commutes.

Cities like Vancouver have found ways to build sleek, space-efficient towers to increase available housing. Innovative developers should consider designing taller high rises with less core space to increase efficiency and middle-income access.

THE AFFORDABILITY GAP

In the Los Angeles metro area, over 60% of renters spend 30% of their income on housing and over 30% now pay more than 50% of earnings on rent. LA has become the second least affordable of the 11 metro cities surveyed. Dallas homeowners earning $50,000 to $150,000 have recently experienced a 12% increase in property taxes on homes ($100,000 to $250,000 range) for 2016. Rising property taxes paired with fixed incomes of middle-class homeowners creates an “affordability gap.”

The Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies in 2015 reported “Homeownership at 20-Year Lows.” They’ve had to either stretch their housing budget or seek housing in poorer areas outside the city. The lack of middle class affordability has become a national crisis, damaging economic vitality and requiring serious presidential attention.

BUILD SMARTER CITIES    

To facilitate great urbanization project managers must think in terms of growth, creating the right framework. City planners and project manners need to coordinate for big picture success and future preparedness. Here are four key areas where small-scale successes could lead to significant overall improvements.

  1. SINGLE-OCCUPANCY MICRO UNITS

If built in convenient locations near public-transit and everyday services and activities, micro-apartments can provide a significantly cheaper option for downtown living. Housing with 150-400 square feet are considered micro-units. According to the AAA, these residents could be saving $8,946 annually without needing a car. Not only is this housing situation more affordable, but also it creates more community sense with the shared amenities.

While this type of living may more attractive to more of a “niche” market, it does create more affordable living space downtown. There are current developments designed for Nashville by the Nashville Civic Design Center. In doing so, Nashville’s urbanization will begin to resemble some of the more metro cities such as Chicago and New York.

Chicago and New York City have attracted innovative developers who are making headway in affordability, catering to young singles. Helmut Jahn, famous Chicago architect, designed single-occupancy housing that’s not only beautiful and affordable but also environmentally-friend with energy-saving features and devices.

The Chicago Tribune refers to his Margot and Harold Schiff Residence building as “Chicago’s great green hope.” The New York Times recognized Jahn for his single-occupancy design where residents pay less than $160 a month. The Long and narrow with a curved class roof, the building resembles a train.

  1. CORE SPACE

With slender and compact high-rises, the Vancouver skyline presents an excellent example of cost reduction through design efficiency. Developers created practical and affordable high-rises primarily through smaller floor plates and tighter core space.

The small floor plates increase the separation between buildings, allowing extra city space for more towers. Additionally, the repetition of floor layouts for each level exponentially magnifies the space and cost savings.

The tighter core layouts include only the bare necessitates for safety. Using fire-rated trash shoots and recycling, scissor stairs and direct elevator to corridor entrances, they eliminated unnecessary hall space. See layout comparisons, which illustrate the significant spatial advantages.

U.S. towers are more expensive and bulky because of building codes and fire department regulations which require additional core space. For example, the city of Los Angeles requires two staircase vestibules, a separate trash and recycling room as well as extra lobby space. The codes are meant to increase safety by controlling the spread of fire and smoke.

On a brighter note, architectural firms such as Humphreys & Partners have already incorporated similar strategies within code requirements. For example, the Humphreys’ Grant Park residential high-rise design in Minneapolis has increased rentable space through eliminating corridors and better placement of parking spaces, elevators and common areas. Further signature designs include improvements such as direct garage access (Big House®) and private elevator lobbies (Home Rise®), highlighting the percentage of space efficiency.

  1. PREFABRICATION

The process of building the structures off-site and then transporting the complete products is called prefabrication. With the design of more compact apartments, this process would greatly streamline and cheapen the project. In Austin developers have taking this new approach to affordability. Most notably, Jeff Wilson, co-owner of Kasita and “Proessor Dumpster,” is designing apartments that are ultra-compact with only 208 square feet, which will cost tenants roughly $600 monthly.

  1. LAND USAGE

Due to potential free market space value, land-use regulations have made consumer housing increasingly expensive in U.S. metro cities. One such restriction specifies a minimum-lot size required for building. However, with efficient designs for slimmer buildings, perhaps this rule could be readjusted.

California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office suggests denser apartment buildings as a primary solution to reduce housing, which remains the highest in the nation. With desirable climate leading to pricey land, every square foot counts.

Just as each building needs a blueprint for its development, land-use planning requires a well-developed master plan for sustainable development. Cities designed for walkability see the best results for healthy, happy residents.

MOVING FORWARD

For more effectiveness, project managers need to enlarge their perspective and coordinate with city planners to solve big picture problems. Seeing the big picture of integrated downtown living for will help developers create more accessibility.

Creating more successful cities requires intelligently developed forethought. Effective project managers use enlarged perspective and continued coordination. With increased planning and communication, big picture solutions can more easily be implemented.