My three lessons from the Urban-X panel “Future of Affordable Housing”

Awesome event by Urban-X

The panelists — Diana Lind, Chris Bledsoe, Karen Kubey, and Greg Lindsay — were fantastic. I took away three lessons from the Urban-X event.

  1. Challenge the dominant narrative

Diana Lind argued that we’ve been designing our homes for nuclear families. In fact, as Greg Lindsay pointed out, the idea of owning your own home has become part of our narrative of adulthood and, for some, masculinity itself. We need housing that is suitable for different living needs. Think intergenerational families, digital nomads, and friends who want to live together.

Models are emerging. Panelists mentioned coliving, microunits, Baugruppe, and Megahouses. Coliving and microunits — of which Chris Bledsoe’s Ollie is one — optimize living space, helping more people live in one smaller unit more affordably (an Ollie room can go from $1300/mo). Baugruppes are a model of Austrian housing where residents pool their resources and become developers of a building. Japan’s Megahouse doesn’t rely on individual homeownership but instead is a subscription room model (Note: I wasn’t able to find more information about this online, so if anyone has a resource, let me know).

I explore some more housing models in several pieces.

  • In The Multifamily Executive (with Stonly Baptiste, partner at Urban.us) — noting how developers can partner with startups to reduce costs. Innovations span new modes of density like microunits and coliving, new construction techniques, and to new financing models, such as crowdfunding.
  • In Shelterforce — looking at how nonprofits are innovating too, using tools like tiny homes and prefab to house the homeless.
  • In Hackernoon (with Cindy Lee) — surveying the landscape of housing startups. This piece takes a long look, in particular, at new ownership models, such as limited-equity cooperatives and community land trusts.

2. Overcome financial and legal barriers

Despite these new experiments challenging our dominant narrative, financial and legal barriers prevent these models from scaling. Mortgage lenders, for instance, charge more to lend to new housing types. NYC and NYS regulations, sometimes referred to as brothel laws, cap the maximum number of unrelated adult occupants in one NYC unit at three. Laws restrict people’s housing choices, especially for those who want to live in smaller spaces and pay less for housing.

Despite these barriers, several initiatives are proving out these models on a wider scale. VC-backed coliving startups like Ollie or Common have been doing a good job demonstrating the promise of co-living. One traditional actor — the city — has also begun dabbling in the space. Through its new program Share.nyc, the city favors income-restricted coliving projects for public land grants. Such large-scale models can further de-risk the model, creating more data that new living models work and subsequent opportunities for lenders and policymakers to become first-movers.

More generally, I’m in support of programs like Share.nyc to favor socially-driven housing innovation. I’ve written a forthcoming piece in the Columbia Public Policy Review (with Christopher Chou) making similar arguments. State, local, and federal policymakers should incubate and incentivize what are currently the minority of developers— social impact and community-led developers. Incentives can include priority to develop on public land, technical assistance, and relaxed zoning requirements, such as relaxing maximum occupancy limits, parking requirements, and minimum lot size requirements.

To deal with increased financial and legal requirements, we can also consider other strategies to reduce costs. I survey many of these in my piece with Stonly in The Multifamily Executive and in my piece in Urban.us exploring startups helping renters save on energy waste.

Fullstack Modular can reduce the time and financial costs of constructing new housing. Cover spits out code-compliant housing designs, reducing regulatory costs. Small Change creates new financing streams for smaller, social-impact developers.

3. Create higher quality of life in higher density environments

While density can save money, it can result in slum-like housing conditions. How do we live more densely but also live well?

This is a million-dollar question. As Chris shared in his story, renters are desperate for cheaper housing solutions, paying dramatic amounts for small spaces in good neighborhoods. Yet, as Karen Kubey mentioned, simply eliminating hard-won living standards in the service of density can’t be the answer either.

Ollie’s two-fold strategy to improve the quality of life in high-density environments involves (1) hotel-like amenities and (2) community. Chris, in particular, believes the latter is the most powerful tool in promoting livable, yet denser living. In fact, there are no-frills coliving solutions arising, such as Padsplit and Hubhaus, which primarily focus on community and roommate-brokering, but ignore amenities.

After the panel, I asked Chris what he thought was key to developing great communities. Furthermore, given the human tendency for like to attract like, I asked what strategies Ollie employs to challenge our tendencies to associate with the same race, class, or gender.

His answer: shared interests. Organizing communities around shared interests could encourage people to meet people different than themselves as they are just doing what they already enjoy together. Excitingly, some of his units are capital “A” affordable with rent caps, meaning Ollie does have socioeconomic diversity. By bringing people together with shared interests, despite their class, gender, or racial background, Ollie can build more diverse communities.

I’m excited by his approach. I had two additional thoughts.

First, many activities are not neutral. Golf, for instance, is an activity stratified by race, class, and/or gender. It’s is also an activity with large upfront costs — training, country club membership, and equipment can reach hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. If diversity in community is a priority, Ollie should think about how to design these shared interests to fight pre-existing cultural tendencies. Wii golf anyone?

Second, just as important as shared interests are shared living habits. These include your preferences for overnight guests and cleaning frequency, disagreements over which are the source of many roommate conflicts. Drawing from my experience with Welcome Home and being a resident adviser for undergraduates, I had a two-fold hypothesis for more diverse communities: when you match roommates with (1) shared living habits and (2) shared interests, you will decrease group conflict and increase group bonds.

Furthermore, even after matching by living habits, we force roommates to have a series of hard conversations upfront resulting in a “roommate agreement.” What do you do if a roommate needs to leave early and how do you find a replacement, for instance? Set expectations to minimize disappointment and surprise later.

In the end, the event was wonderful and led to some cool conversations, such as Oscar Abello’s recommendation to read Warmth of Other Suns and Nick Hamilton’s advice to join the NYC Urban Sustainability Meetup.

The logistics were also great: the size of the space was just right, the acoustics were solid, and the people were welcoming and interested.

Would love to hear your thoughts. Connect at https://linkedin.com/li/wu12345

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