Viewpoints

Getting smart about affordable housing: trending concepts worth a look

By Liz Enbysk, Smart Cities Council

Forget the drab, no-nonsense affordable housing stock of yesteryear. Today we're seeing affordable housing with a wide range of smart and creative approaches – from wellness oriented developments to super energy efficient housing to complexes that meet the needs of seniors, veterans, even artists. Consider a few examples.
 

Focusing on wellness
Late last year the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency (MDHA) in Nashville opened a dialysis clinic at one of its public housing sites – an effort to ease the time and transportation hassle for residents who need treatment. MDHA estimates 200 of its public housing residents are on dialysis, according to a Nashville Public Radio report.

The agency is partnering with a private company to run the clinic and to offer job training to public housing residents so they can become dialysis technicians. The goal is to eventually put dialysis machines in patients' homes along with technicians to treat them.

Blue Sea Development opened the smoke-free, eco-friendly Eltona public housing building in an asthma-prone neighborhood in New York City's South Bronx in 2009. It was Blue Sea's first LEED Platinum building, co-founder Les Bluestone told DNAinfo.com.

What's interesting here? “Rent delinquencies are still not uncommon in our buildings, but we did notice that as a percentage, our first LEED Platinum building had a lower rate of delinquency because of medical reasons,” Bluestone told DNAinfo.

Now the company is making wellness front and center in its latest public housing project -- Prospect Plaza in Brooklyn. Bluestone says the hope is to demonstrate that healthier buildings lead to healthier residents and in turn better financial outcomes for developers. It has invited medical researchers to gather evidence.

Prospect Plaza has a host of wellness-focused amenities, from music and lighting in stairwells to encourage their use to bike racks and outdoor recreational areas to availability of healthy foods nearby.

In Los Angeles, The Six is an affordable housing project designed for disabled homeless veterans that won a 2017 AIA award for contemporary architecture. What sets it apart is its emphasis on group and interactive social spaces that incorporate a lot of natural light and air as opposed to more traditional shelter models.

The Six – which plays on the  military term "I’ve got your six" and the bond between soldiers – offers on-site health and wellness programs, walkability and  rehab for formerly homeless disabled veterans and individuals in Los Angeles’ MacArthur Park section.

The complex is owned by Skid Row Housing Trust and was designed by Brooks + Scarpa.

"It's this idea that good design is a basic civil right and everyone deserves good design," architect Angela Brooks told FastCoDesign.com. "This idea that we would put people in a building that’s badly designed is un-American. People have a right to live in a place that lifts their spirits, especially veterans."
 

Making room for artists
In nearby Glendale, CA, Ace 121 is a new affordable housing complex for working artists located in the city's arts district. PublicCEO.com explains that Ace 121 was developed by Meta Housing Corp. with land provided by the Glendale YMCA and financing from the Glendale Housing Authority, Western Housing Community, Inc. and California tax credits.

Located in the heart of the city, the complex is near transit and the business district. It includes art studios, a gallery, a kiln, classroom space, music rooms and other artist-focused amenities.

Artists are typically freelancers who do not get a regular paycheck and can find themselves struggling to pay rent. The idea of affordable housing geared to artists is a trend evident in other cities too. Just this week the state of Hawaii's first affordable housing project for artists broke ground in Kakaako on Oahu.

Hawaii News Now says the Ola Key 'Ilima Artspace Project is a partnership between the Pa'i Foundation, the government, EAH Housing and Artspace, which is involved with 24 other low-income housing complexes for artists in the U.S.
 

Vermont's first net zero affordable housing
Last fall Vermont opened McKnight Lane, the state's first net zero energy affordable housing development  on a formerly unoccupied, blighted mobile home park located in Waltham. It features 14 net zero homes configured into seven duplexes.

Manufactured in Wilder, Vermont, the VerMOD homes incorporate a slew of energy efficient technologies, including:

  • Cold climate heat pumps
  • State-of-the-art ventilation systems
  • 6 kW roof-mounted solar photovoltaic array to meet all energy needs
  • Smart solar energy systems for backup power

"Nearly half of Addison County renters are burdened by their housing costs, paying more than a third of their incomes in rent and utilities," said Elise Shanbacker, Executive Director of Addison County Community Trust. "Not only is McKnight Lane affordable to low-income Vermonters, the net-zero homes with resilient battery systems ensure residents won’t have to choose between purchasing groceries or paying their fuel bill to stay warm this winter."
 

Affordable senior living on St. Thomas
In the U.S. Virgin Islands, a public-private partnership has opened an 80-unit affordable housing complex for low and middle-income seniors in St. Thomas.

Each unit in Sugar Estate, as it's called, is handicapped adaptable and features energy-efficient appliances. Social activities, financial workshops, a computer learning center, nutrition counseling and wellness services will all be available, according to housingfinance.com.

Virgin Islands Housing Authority and Marlton, N.J.-based The Michaels Development Co. partnered on the development.
 

High time for affordability in Britain
All sorts of initiatives are under way to shelter the homeless in tiny houses, upgraded shipping containers and the like. Here's a novel approach out of the UK, where a pod maker proposes putting micro-homes topped with solar panels on stilts in car parks.

The Daily Mail says the company behind the £65,000 ZEDpod solution sees it as an opportunity for key workers like nurses and teachers who need affordable housing near town centers and as starter homes for young couples. The cars would stay in the parks; the pods would hover above.

"This is a unique solution to the UK's housing crisis," Tom Northway, a director of Zedpod Ltd, told the Mail. "By utilizing unused air space above car parks we can provide 1000s of homes for key workers across the UK."

The first pod is on display at the Building Research Establishment innovation park in Watford for authorities, developers and other potential buyers to see.

 

Liz Enbysk is editor of Compassionate Cities, an initiative of the Smart Cities Council that highlights how city leaders and other stakeholders can leverage smart technologies to end suffering in their communities and give all citizens a route out of poverty.

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