Recently, I’ve immensely thought about the legacies of racial segregation and class divisions, and how vital it is that we reverse course. The policy aspect is one side of the problem, but we should also be building, renovating, and rehabilitating housing — and we can do it with good design.

True affordable housing is nearly non-existent in today’s development landscape, particularly in New York. The fight continues for fair, affordable, or free public housing. But it must come with a reckoning of the reigning real estate industry that cannot continue to hold the sway it does in city and state governments. Once that day of reckoning arrives (and I’m aware that it’ll be an uphill battle), we should not make the mistakes of the past that have relegated low-income, Black, and POC residents to segregated neighborhoods with poor design.

In many of these examples, what is considered good urban design is from a Eurocentric point of view. I don’t present them as a call to replicate them all, but instead to think critically about how we can adapt some of their successes to what is needed in our communities. I strongly believe we can build more housing, while incorporating community resources, businesses, and public spaces, to make good design accessible for all.

Social housing can be beautiful

It takes one quick search to find beautifully designed social housing complexes from cities around the world. Here, I highlight just a few of my favorites.

Savonnerie Heymans in Brussels used to be a soap factory converted into beautiful high-density apartments that are 100% social housing, yet a mix of sizes. The architecture includes beautiful glass exteriors, preserves the industrial feel of the former factory, and balconies for each apartment, as is more standard in Europe. More importantly, the complex is equipped with a community room, a “mini-forest” garden, and a 3D landscaped park.

Savonnerie Heymans, Brussels, Belgium — All rights owned by ArchDaily

Tête en l’air in Paris shows us that decrepit buildings don’t have to be torn down completely and that you can build within the confines of a narrow space. The new section is entirely constructed with wood, which enables the building to be environmentally-friendly (not to mention, a unique design on the streets of Paris). There is a community garden in the center and all living rooms and terraces face the garden to allow for a friendly neighborhood vibe in the middle of this industrial neighborhood.

Tête in l’air, Paris, France — All rights owned by ArchDaily

Quinta Monroy in Iquique, Chile provided homes for indigenous people and others that were previously relegated to slums in this Chilean desert city. This project features low-rise, low-density houses that were built with cost constrains of only $7,500 per lot. The studio, Elemental, made sure they achieved density without overcrowding and built the overall structure with open space to allow for residents to finish the construction as they please. While the last point seems like a shift of the burden, each unit contains all the necessities and support of a home. With the cost constraints at hand, it made more sense to provide long-term social housing in an urban center for stability, rather than displacing the residents to the periphery with a full construction.

Quinta Monroy complex, Iquique, Chile — All rights owned by ArchDaily

We’ve built affordable housing projects with design in mind in New York as well, like the Sugar Hill Project in Harlem, built by famed architect David Adjaye, who designed the Smithsonian NMAAHC in Washington. But with an $84 million price tag and a slew of problems, this remains an unsustainable and unscalable attempt to give the community dignity in a city changing rapidly with luxury apartments all around them. The location also matters. If we’re going to build new affordable housing in NYC and beyond, they have to be equally distributed to avoid continuing legacies of segregation. Harlem needs more public or affordable housing, but so does the Upper West Side, Park Slope, and Astoria.

Thinking outside the box

I’m not an engineer, an architect, nor do I work in construction. That being said, from articles and research that I’ve read, there’s a plethora of materials, construction methods, and systems that are becoming cheaper and faster to build with.

One innovation, which is one of the newest, is 3D Printing. Rapidly developing tech with 3D printed materials has driven down the cost of construction. A collaboration of an SF housing nonprofit, New Story, and 3D Printing tech company, Icon, recently embarked on a project to construct 100 3D Printed homes in El Salvador for a cost of about $10,000 each — which could be brought to as low as $4,000, depending on the size.

Courtesy of Business Insider — New Story/BANDD Designs

It’s unclear whether this technology will drive large scale projects with 3D printed material, however, it could be the first step to solving some of our immediate issues. Homelessness is plaguing our cities across the country — in NYC, the shelter system is broken. While we push for long term housing as a right for all, we could build modular 3D Printed shelters to provide a transitional place for homeless individuals. Additionally, these could serve as temporary housing for potential refugees and undocumented immigrants — instead of having people sleep in tents, as infamously seen in cities like Paris and Los Angeles.

This brings me to my next point: modular housing, also known as a type of prefab construction. This is a relatively new phenomenon, which essentially boils down to offsite construction of housing parts. An article in Curbed defines it best: “Modular homes involve making components off-site and then transferring the modules to a plot of land for final installation. Each module usually has all the basics, like plumbing, electrical, doors, and closets — and you can usually connect multiple modules.” This type of construction generally results in less waste, more sustainable materials, energy-efficiency, and customization that enables them to be adaptable to their conditions.

An interesting project I came across when I visited Boston was called “uHu” or Urban Housing Unit — designed by a couple of architecture firms in collaboration with Boston’s Housing Innovation Lab. They were able to build modular homes that are stackable with a simple design and cost between $40,000 to $70,000 at full-scale production that includes furniture. Since a typical Boston apartment costs north of $300,000, this is a cheap and efficient way to provide housing, whether temporary or permanent, at a much rapid pace than developing a new apartment building in our current state of affairs.

UHÜ, Urban Housing Unit

When building or renovating housing, we should also be thinking about how to beautify public spaces and create circular economies within communities. For example, the popularity of farmer’s markets, in recent years, could be tied to local urban farming efforts that employ members in the community. Our neighborhoods need more libraries, schools, community centers, and space for small shops, not mega-chains that only serve corporate interests. This is a topic I’d like to dive deeper into in another writing.

Stifling policies

There is plenty of blame to throw around the private sector for chasing profit and endless growth with no remorse, however, they’re enabled by government policy. As I begin my journey as an urban planning student, I’m looking forward to learning about how mechanisms like zoning laws, regulations, and incentives warp our ability to build real affordable housing. Even from what I know thus far, I can make some fair assumptions.

Outdated, exclusionary, and racist zoning laws have lasted in some places for decades and are changed on a whim with no regard for what communities need. When neighborhoods are upzoned (building higher), the theory is that there will be more housing supply for the influx of people to prevent skyrocketing rents in the private market. This is far from the reality as we’ve only seen a flood of “luxury rentals” come to the market. These zonings don’t take into account the increase in displacement, necessary infrastructure and transportation upgrades, and vital community input on what services are needed. We can’t build better housing without dismantling this system.

Minimum parking requirements grind my gears (no pun intended). This is one of the most outdated policies that significantly increase the costs of construction. If a building has to build X number of parking spaces to accommodate residents, it either takes away space for additional apartments or retail, or it increases costs of construction to build underground parking.

Parking under building in Los Angeles — Courtesy of LA Times

Additionally, it incentivizes developers to incorporate other amenities in the building since, if your renters can have parking, they might as well enjoy extra amenities. Why not go all the way and build luxury apartments to recoup the costs of construction and maintenance? The incentives are warped and have enabled the private real estate industry to run amok with amenities galore in new developments.

The final tricky point that I try to grapple with is the power of community boards. In one respect, these boards should reflect the needs of the community. You would think throughout the years that there would’ve been a greater push to build the needed supply of cheap housing for our residents to thrive, but that has not been the case. On the other hand, upper-middle-class and rich neighborhoods have used these boards to oppose development that disrupts their low-rise “neighborhood character” or any attempt to racially and socio-economically integrate their neighborhoods. Guess who has the larger say when new projects are proposed? If cities are going to be serious about enabling a variety of projects that improve our housing crisis equitably, they can’t let community boards stand in the way.

We don’t have to settle. Throughout our history, we’ve relegated Black and low-income communities to substandard housing that is poorly designed. We can change the course of that. This is just a short reflection based on recent thinking that I’ve done, but as I begin my journey in education, I’m going to explore these possibilities further. I know that it can be done, but it takes the willpower of public, private, and non-profit actors. None of this discounts (in fact, it is parallel to) the deep structural changes we need to make in how we value housing, public spaces, and environmental justice as a human right in our cities. We need to continue to dismantle racist, segregationist policies, while also investing in the solutions to build better housing in the long-term.

urbanist / tidsoptimist / daydreamer / student & future planner at Pratt GCPE /