One of the topics I am most passionate about as an architect is housing. Based on what is seen on Instagram, one might think it is custom homes. But that is just not true. My story as an architect has been surrounded by issues of housing insecurity - both personally and professionally. Housing insecurity has no standard definition but is commonly considered by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, HUD, to be when individuals/families spend between 30 and 50% of their income on housing. When the burden of costs approaches 50% of a person's income, then other necessities such as food, clothing, and health care are sacrificed and remain unmet. In February of 2021, the U.S. average monthly rent for an apartment was $1,124. To be under the threshold of housing insecurity you must make $3,746 per month after tax, which is approximately $45,000 per year. According to a poll in 2019, this accounted for about 37% of American households. California's data is worse, especially after the pandemic.
After a presentation I gave on housing at a conference just the other week, I was asked by an architect in Portland what we can do to help shift the conversation of affordable housing to solve the issues of housing insecurity. Architects have the unique position of knowing enough about planning and building regulations to be able to make significant contributions to the field of affordable housing even if non-profit and government entities are not our clients. Here are three things that came from that conversation.
First, as architects, we must educate the general public that affordable housing is not a bad word, and being housing insecure can happen to anyone. Up until 2019, I was housing insecure. As an owner of a new architecture firm, a part-time lecturer, and the sole provider of a family of four, we spent close to $2,500 on rent and mortgage to afford a home on the Central Coast of California. This equates to $30,000 a year towards housing, and therefore I would have to make over $90,000 a year to not be housing insecure. The only thing that made it possible to get under this threshold was a refinance due to good interest rates. We have a responsibility to stand up to the NIMBY (Not in My BackYard) and educate that affordable housing does not mean undesirable tenants.
Second, affordable housing comes with great potential due to density bonuses and zoning regulations or exemptions. These codes and requirements take a bit of effort in understanding, and architects are well suited to review, remember, and apply these. If you have a desire to help, it is important to educate yourself. In California, Government Code Section 65915, commonly known as the Density Bonus Law, allows for up to 50% density bonus to those projects that house higher percentages of deed-restricted low income, and very-low-income housing units. Actually, as of 2021, state law AB 2345 requires all cities to comply with this 50% rate even if it is not a local code. This means that you can add more units to your current development if you provide low-income units, and this means more people are housed and more potential unit sales or rentals for the owners.
Last, if there is a desire for an architect, firm, or community of professionals to do more, then a great approach would be to help identify parcels for development. Many cities in the U.S. are not fortunate to be staffed with capable planners and building officials. Some need General Plan updates that may still honor low density and single-family zoning. Therefore, a great help would be to identify potential properties that can receive density and apply calculations per state or federal density bonuses as a way to vet projects for development. There are not enough non-profits or government agencies in the country to be able to tackle every property on their own. This being the case, every capable hand helps.