“Housing is where jobs go to sleep at night. Affordable housing is where essential jobs go to sleep at night,” explained David Smith, CEO of the Affordable Housing Institute at the ASLA 2017 Annual Meeting in Los Angeles. The farther apart a home is from a workplace, “the more stress” is placed on the transportation system. As essential workers are forced to look farther and farther from the urban core for affordable housing, they reinforce patterns of sprawl, increase traffic, and reduce economic efficiency, not through any fault of their own. A few solutions, according to the panel, are building new affordable housing in smaller lots and through more “moderately-dense” infill development.
As the world urbanizes, particularly the developing world, meeting the housing needs of rapidly-growing urban populations has become increasingly difficult. According to Smith, almost every city in the world is now experiencing an affordable housing crisis. This is reflected in the fact that “every fast-growing city has a slum.” Those slums tend to formalize over time, but their appearance reflects a housing marketplace out of synch — they reflect a community that can’t give essential workers jobs near their employer.
Smith defined affordable housing as “quality accommodations affordable to a target population, secure in tenure, affordable over a duration that operate independently as a business.”
Interestingly, the challenges facing seemingly vastly-different regions are similar. In the case of southern California and Saudi Arabia, for example, both “fetishize horizontal growth; are infatuated with car-based transportation; depend on immigrant or expatriate workers, but don’t acknowledge them; underuse verticality; and demonstrate a massive cultural resistance to affordable housing.”
Looking at Saudi Arabia, landscape architect Charles Ware, ASLA, explained how “development patterns are sprawling, wasteful, and alienating.” Beyond the 9 million temporary workers brought in from South Asia, who must live in basic dormitory conditions, some 85 percent of Saudis “can’t afford basic housing.” But amid great social change, a growing youth population is “demanding a better quality of life.”
According to Ware, estimates run from half a million to two million fewer homes than what is needed. Land development costs are high, so there are low financial returns for developers. And it’s difficult for them to access finance. “Saudi Arabia is in trouble.”
To address these problems, King Abdullah, who passed away two years ago, created a national strategy of economic diversification, with affordable housing as a central component of a sustainable future path. For Ware, this means smaller lots than what Saudis are currently accustomed to, which would use less water, energy, and land.
Working on a Parsons-led project with the Saudi Ministry of Housing, David Keenan, City Lights Design Alliance, explained how the kingdom is undertaking the development of 500,000 new housing units, set in brand-new sustainable, compact, walkable mixed-use communities. These communities feature “smaller lot sizes, reduced street sizes, and smaller public spaces.”
Delving into the details of Parson’s project in Dammam, found in eastern Saudi Arabia, landscape architect David Carlson, ASLA, detailed walkable 300-meter-radius clusters centered around a mosque, kindergarten, park, and retail zone. From the onset, the community was designed to reuse grey water from homes to irrigate the landscapes of public spaces, and light-colored building materials were used to reduce the urban heat island effect.
University of Southern California professor and architect John Mutlow then discussed affordable housing challenges in the Golden State. Beginning in the 80s, the focus was on creating family housing, but that shifted to create homes for those with special needs, and then HIV, veterans, and, now the homeless. Homelessness has exploded in the past few years, with nearly 60,000 homeless on the streets and in shelters in Los Angeles county today. The situation has gotten so dire that “homeless are now creating shelters for themselves in residential neighborhoods.”
To address the lack of affordable housing for homeless, California government put Measure H on the ballot, which was approved by voters and provides some $355 million, but mostly for “social services instead of financing for actual new housing.” Another 15 more housing bills designed to speed up the housing review and approval process and increase density have made their way through the legislature and signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown, but these actions just “nip at the edges of the problem.” Mutlow said another $4 billion affordable housing proposal coming up next year.
More than 60 non-profit community-based housing corporations have sprung up in southern California alone to make up for the lack of government action and bring together state and federal funds to make projects happen. However, for Mutlow, the main problem remains the high cost of building affordable housing in California. With not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) concerns, high labor and material costs, affordable housing is “$200 per square foot in California, at a minimum; it’s about $100 per square foot in the Deep South.” Still, he saw “moderately-dense” infill development as the solution, at least in his case studies.
Smith had the last word: “Every government wants more and more affordable housing. And they have the means to create more. They have money, own land, can upzone, use taxes and incentives — they have the means. Unfortunately, governments seldom have the will.”