Affordable housing has long been difficult to obtain in California. According to the Bloomberg Affordable Housing Index, the state is home to four of the five least affordable metro areas in the country. Residents have spoken: In the most recent election, voters across the famously expensive Bay Area approved measures to finance construction and rehabilitation of affordable rental units in the counties of Alameda, Berkeley, Oakland, Santa Clara and San Mateo. In San Francisco, which has long burdened renters with some of the highest rates in the country, voters approved Proposition C, a measure that will allow the city to designate $261 million in unused funding originated in 1992 for seismic upgrades to be used instead for the acquisition and rehabilitation of multifamily units intended for conversion to permanently affordable housing.
While the need for viable housing options is clearly apparent, pulling off the development of an affordable housing community is fraught with challenges, both logistically and during the design process. A successful affordable housing project should blend seamlessly with the existing community and offer its residents a safe and cost-effective housing solution. According to David Obitz, principal at California-based KTGY Architecture + Planning, “There’s no competition (for affordable housing) because it’s in such demand, and it is becoming harder and harder to provide because of the changing economies and crises at the state and local levels, where there are just not enough tax credits available or redevelopment agencies don’t have the funds to start affordable housing.” With more than 30 years as an architect with an emphasis on multifamily and affordable design, Obitz revealed some strategies for mastering the complex art of designing financially feasible communities that also lend visual appeal to the surrounding neighborhood.
What are the current affordable housing design trends?
Trying to leverage mixed-income communities, affordable as well as market rate. There are some new ways of thinking about that now. Some of it is through developing a certain portion of land as market rate to try to leverage some of the economies and profits from that to help subsidize the (affordable units). Some of that isn’t just using the money f rom the market rate to build the homes but also the infrastructure of the roads, the utilities (and) all the stuff that’s underground to help subsidize the affordable piece. We’re seeing a lot of those strategies where … our affordable home builders partner with market-rate home builders, working together to solve cities’ affordability issues and crises.
What are the main challenges you face developing affordable housing?
In today’s market, I think the biggest issue is land costs. Over the past decade or so, there’s been a real drive to build in city cores, where the infrastructure is and where transit and employment are, and that’s been very successful and desirable, almost to the detriment of affordable housing. It’s driven up land prices to such a point that only the people who can pay for the higher housing costs can have housing in the core or city center. If you have very expensive land in the city’s core, how do you create the financing; how do you come up with the money to subsidize affordable rents where it’s needed? I think there could be some reversal of that by trying to limit the amount of infrastructure that’s being developed and trying to preserve green space. … I think there can be balance, whether you’re in the city core and finding pieces that might be undervalued, or stretching out the infrastructure just enough where you can find those undervalued pieces of land that would be great opportunities for affordable housing.
How do you design affordable housing competitively?
In terms of affordable housing that has some subsidy to it, there really is no competition for it. There are still lines around the block to occupy those units because of the amount of people who qualify for it, who need it, who would really appreciate it. … In terms of being competitive out there, it’s really trying to stretch your dollar to the most; it’s really trying to be artfully simple in the project by making simple, bold moves to create the simplicity in the design that will give you efficiencies and economies of scale while also giving back to the community, whether that’s enhanced architecture, open space that’s shared with the community or even a function or an amenity that’s also shared with the community. Those are measures that are reasonably challenging right now and are opportunities to get projects approved that will have more community appeal at the entitlement level by being not just a standalone (property) that looks inward but one that looks outward and gives back to the community.
What are some of your strategies for creating a well-designed community on an affordable budget?
Our strategy is paying careful attention to scale and proportion. There is no budget or line item for that; it’s really in the artistry that goes into doing architecture. It costs the same, whether you have tall or short proportions, to come up with what I call the “magical proportions” that are appealing to a community. It’s coming up with the right scale, the right texture; it’s thinking about the pedestrian level and engaging with the land and the sidewalk level that’s important.
How do you incorporate amenities into an affordable design plan?
There are some amenities that are quite functional that are meant to engage the community and not just the residents of the project or the neighborhood. Examples of that might be day care or a corner market or some other civic or public use that will bring people into the neighborhood or project but also something that will serve the public. … If you don’t necessarily have that mixed-use component, finding open space is a great way to bring the community together with the development. It might be on the property and maintained and policed by the development, but it’s something that gives back to the community. It might be an inefficient corner of the site, or a setback or easement, or some other reason why you can’t build there, but a lot of times if you can put (open space) in the right spot, then you can invite the public in and engage them. Through community workshops and outreach, we’re able to find those spaces and promote them and celebrate them with the community.
Our affordable development clients (deem) the entitlement and the approval very important and sensitive, but it seems like they’re very open-minded when it comes to finding those joint-use types of spaces. There might be a multipurpose room or club room type of space that’s available for city meetings or public meetings. There have been many times that the local jurisdiction or the city’s dollar is going into a development, so it’s a great way to give back to the city and accommodate meeting space or gathering space for city meetings, senior events, Boy or Girl Scout meetings that you used to find in libraries or City Hall-type locations.
How do you meet the expectations of public or non-profit stakeholders?
One of the biggest design goals we have is trying to artfully blend an affordable community with the rest of the community. We’re truly trying to do it in a seamless way. … We don’t want to create a substandard community because it’s affordable; we never want to have it be identifiable as the “affordable people.” Whether it’s smart master planning to figure out the way to find the right place to be—we really try to integrate it into the community plan so it’s not identifiable. That goes all the way to the architectural detail, (as we use) a blend of architectural styles and details and textures that are coordinated with the rest of the community, whether it’s a brand-new community or one that’s been there for decades. It may not match or copy or mimic it exactly, but there’s a careful attention to scale, proportion and height so we’re able to blend into the context in order to destigmatize affordable housing.
How does a construction budget for affordable housing affect material choice?
It depends on the neighborhood, whether it’s a more monochromatic community or one that has, say, a history of Spanish-style architecture—our material choices will represent that. If we’re in a community that’s a little more eclectic and has a varied palette of materials, from brick to siding to metal roofs to tile roofs, we try to play off of that and relate to it. We’re always looking for durability, materials that will stand the test of time, whether it’s stucco or siding or masonry. We’re also looking at newer materials and how we can provide those durable materials with an interesting color and texture as well as durability. It’s hard to just use wood siding anymore because it takes more maintenance than a material of similar color, texture and style. We’re looking at manufactured materials, with two-dimensional (patterns) printed on it, and we’re looking in the future at 3-D printing, which can create durable, long-lasting materials that have depth and scale as well as color. … It totally opens up your imagination to do things we’re not even thinking about today.
How does today’s emphasis on sustainability affect affordable housing design?
Most of our affordable developer clients have the ability and the wherewithal to get LEED certification. Many projects are certified all the way up to the Platinum level. … We’re already looking to the future of providing buildings with a high degree of sustainability because it’s not something by choice but it’s going to be mandated by our building codes. The technology in mechanical, heating and air conditioning systems keeps getting revolutionized and keeps becoming more efficient, so we’re able to meet sustainability demands on an energy level. We also see wellness and healthy living as a big part of being sustainable. There are all sorts of facets, whether it’s large-scale garden-to-table ideas where you’re getting your food locally or it’s down to your individual units where you’re getting filtered air and water to have a more holistic lifestyle. It not only applies to the building but to the tenants who live in the building.
How has the emerging trend of micro or efficiency unit sizes affected your approach to affordable housing design?
There are homebuyers, tenants and renters who are very much interested in being in the right location. They’re willing to sacrifice the size of their home to be closer to their job or shopping or entertainment. We see that trend continuing. We’re able to reduce the cost of rent by taking some of the square footage out of those units and making it more affordable, both on a market-rate level as well as (making it) a tax-credit or affordable community. But you need to get something back. You don’t want to be in a small apartment that has no city qualities to the environment. If you don’t have all the amenities offsite—like employment, entertainment, shopping—then you need to take some of that square footage that you took out of the units and put it into the amenity package, into gathering and social spaces and recreational or fitness spaces. … At the same time, we want to make sure they’re efficiently designed, appealing and used. The last thing we want is over-scaled amenities that don’t get used. … Some of the older models for one- and two-bedroom units were in the high 700s to nearly 800 square feet for a one-bedroom. Now we’re seeing the low to mid-600s square feet for a one-bedroom. We’re able to do that through some creative floorplan designs and trying to keep the apartment as open as possible, with open kitchen designs, single-wall kitchens, storage systems that are flush-mounted to the walls (or) rolling carts that might be a dining table and food preparation area. The loss of square footage isn’t as noticeable if the designs are a little bit smarter.
Originally appearing in the December 2016 issue of MHN.