Sunday, June 16, 2019

NEW HOUSING SOLUTIONS: Innovations for Affordability, Community and Health. NewCities New York City June 6, 2019

     A couple of months ago, I received an invitation to attend an affordable housing symposium in New York, from the New Cities Foundation, an organization I had never heard of. But it had been a while since I was in NYC, and although limited details were provided, I decided to attend in the hope I would learn how American cities are addressing homelessness and other affordable housing challenges.  I subsequently received the one-day program. Key topics were right up my alley and included:

  • Co-living; models for affordable housing; building for new demographics; balancing growth and equity; construction innovations (including modular housing), and the future of cooperatives and Land Trusts.
     While a lot of the conversation was not relevant since the US has a very different governmental tax structure to support affordable housing, other topics were most relevant and at times fascinating. For example co-living, something for which I have long advocated, is considerably advanced in American cities where new companies like Ollie and Common are providing forms of housing unlike anything currently available in Vancouver. While we have many examples of younger, and older people living together in shared arrangements, I suspect it's just a matter of time before we see companies like this operating here.
     I knew it was worth travelling to New York when I heard participants talking about the benefits of 'pressure walls', a term I had never even heard of. What are pressure walls?
     Another session which I found particularly interesting was on the topic of ADUs or accessory dwelling units. In Vancouver, we call the laneway houses or coach houses. While not very common in the United States, State of California does allow ADUs as a matter of right, and this is led to some innovative initiatives including the backyard homes project which incentivizes homeowners to create an affordable rental unit in their backyard. While this might sound like the Vancouver program it is in fact very different.
     Under this program, a non-profit organization offers homeowners a one-stop shop for financing, designing, permitting, constructing and leasing an ADU to a low-income resident receiving government rental support for a minimum of 5 years. While the program is new, and relatively untested, it remains to be seen if it will work. However, it is an innovative approach to house the homeless, and others seeking affordable housing.
     I was also intrigued by United Dwelling which encourages people to turn their garages into affordable dwelling units. 
     Another program of interest is Nesterly which arranges home-sharing between generations. One of the co-founders grew up on Cortes Island and has very close family ties to Vancouver. I have been promoting similar programs in Vancouver since there are hundreds of thousands of empty bedrooms in Metro, many of which could be used to house those looking for affordable housing.

     I knew I had made the right decision to attend this event when one exercise involved assessing the various ideas presented using Edward deBono's 6 thinking hats. As many know, I am a great fan of deBono and have often promoted his books at my lectures.
     At the symposium, there were architects, government officials and housing planners from across the US, but also France and Spain. I was particularly delighted to meet Antoni Font, Social Innovation Officer for the City of Barcelona who is overseeing a relocatable modular housing initiative very similar to what I proposed for my university thesis and now currently underway in Vancouver and elsewhere around the province.
     For those interested in the current Vancouver experience with modular housing for the homeless, go here:
     While most of the attendees familiar with Vancouver recognized that our situation is quite different from most other North American cities, there is no doubt that we can learn from the US experience, and they can learn from us.  A future symposium might examine in detail the different housing programs offered by federal, state, and municipal governments in the US and federal, provincial and municipal governments in Canada.
     I was impressed with the program arranged by New Cities and look forward to participating in future symposiums and events. There are many good ideas out there that should be shared.

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