Affordability Now!

The United States is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis. Over the last two decades, rents have risen far faster than renters’ incomes, resulting in record-breaking numbers of families being unable to afford decent homes. The statistics are staggering: according to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, in 2016, nearly one-third of all US households paid more than 30 percent of their incomes for housing (for renters, the cost-burdened share is 47 percent). In no US state can a full-time minimum wage worker afford to rent or own a one-bedroom dwelling. Fewer than four affordable and available rental homes exist for every 10 deeply poor renter households nationwide. To put the demand for affordable housing in perspective, consider that a recent development in Brooklyn received over 87,000 applications for 200 affordable units. 

Despite apathy at the highest levels of government, this crisis has engendered a wave of activism and experimentation that has brought architects, landscape architects, urban planners, and urban designers together with tenants fearful of displacement, community-based groups organizing against gentrification, and local policymakers across the political spectrum. The resulting coalitions have resulted in some bold new affordable housing initiatives. From policies like universal rent control, to bottom-up initiatives for cooperative developments, community land trusts, and other communal environments that attempt to decommodify land, to architectural experiments with “tiny homes,” modular and prefab construction, and other types of low-cost housing, to a renewed push for municipally-constructed public housing, the present is an exciting time for bold new experiments in affordable housing production. 

This interdisciplinary studio, offered in conjunction with Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, invites students from all departments to experiment with these—and many other—new weapons in the affordable housing arsenal. Our site is the Los Angeles region, where the affordability crisis is particularly dire (housing costs in Los Angeles eat up an average of 47 percent of residents’ income—more than any other major US city). After a field trip to the frontlines of Los Angeles’s most prominent affordability battlegrounds, students will work with tenants, community-based organizations, and city officials to imagine how we might creatively deploy cooperative developments, community land trusts, low-cost housing prototypes, and other weapons to help build a more equitable region. As there are a myriad of ways in which architects, landscape architects, urban planners, and urban designers can intervene here, studio projects are expected to be very diverse and range in scale from the individual building to the block to the neighborhood to the region.