Designing Affordable Housing in an HGTV World

How to appeal to residents with elements that deliver ROI.

The affordable housing sector provides much-needed services to its residents, but it has not been known for its cutting-edge design. While a growing number of new construction and redevelopment projects have featured creativity and higher-quality finishes, many affordable developers still equate “design” with extras that will blow the budget.

After a long history of focusing on function more than form, the affordable housing industry appears to be at a tipping point. Thirty years after HGTV made its debut, multifamily is looking very different from the vanilla product that dominated in 1994—and that style is becoming much more visible in low-income housing.

READ ALSO: Is Modular the Best Solution to Multifamily’s Big Supply Problem?

Return on investment

According to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, renters in the U.S. face a shortage of 7.3 million affordable rental homes. There are only 33 affordable and available homes for every 100 extremely low-income households. Despite this shortage, the sector is competitive, and paying attention to design can help attract residents.

“There’s something of a misconception that there’s a long line of people and you just provide housing and they always stay. We also have to deal with resident retention,” said Todd Watkins, co-founder, COO & general counsel at RailField Partners.

Capito Vista Screening Room
The screening room at Capitol Vista in Washington, D.C., designed by Kia Weatherspoon, is just one of several luxury amenities not typically found in affordable apartment living. Image courtesy of Determined by Design

It starts with curb appeal, including uniform light fixtures, a great paint job, new shutters and doors, and careful attention to landscaping. It’s also first impressions at the pool and pool furniture, the dog parks and laundry rooms.

RailField invests in existing properties. “We don’t do a total gut rehab and empty everything out,” Watkins noted. “There is a measure of using what you have.” The emphasis is on replacing carpet with luxury vinyl tile flooring, updating appliances as needed and bringing shower heads, faucets and toilets to environmental standards.

“People still have choices, and we need to make sure that we’re the choice that they want to make. Design is a part of that,” Watkins observed. ”I don’t want people to drive by and say, ‘That’s an affordable property.’”

Bring on the bling

Les Bluestone, principal & co-founder of Blue Sea Development, has been developing affordable housing in the New York City metro area since 1999. “This wasn’t always the way with affordable housing, but now when a new design element comes down the pike and people are impressed by it, we try to incorporate it to set our building apart from another,” said Bluestone. “At one time, bling was simply having a pullout faucet in a kitchen. Now that’s expected.”

Linden Grove Kitchen
The kitchens at Linden Grove, a modular building for low-income seniors in Brooklyn, feature stainless steel appliances and a pull-down faucet. Image courtesy of Blue Sea Development

He has installed dishwashers, stone countertops, tile backsplashes, video intercoms, USB charging outlets, NEST thermostats, LVT flooring and high-design doors and hardware in his affordable apartments.

Blue Sea starts off with a city-approved baseline budget, but Bluestone says they are usually able to tweak it and add to it as they go along. “We give our residents as much design bling as the city and budget will allow. The trick is to find the most cost-effective bling.” 

At Linden Grove, a modular building for low-income seniors in Brooklyn, Bluestone is working with a company to create a custom mosaic tile design that looks high-end and will be installed in the lobby and on each floor. “When they come into the building or off the elevator, they’ll see this amazing mosaic work,” he said. 

Statement lighting is also important. Bluestone selects fixtures that won’t get damaged easily. And in one building he did a living green wall for the entire length of the lobby. “You walk in, and it’s not only calming but it also helps improve the air quality. It’s wonderful and totally high-end,” he observed.

“We’re big believers that if you treat people with respect and give them materials, surfaces and features that maybe they’re not used to receiving in low-income and affordable housing, they will be appreciative and take pride in their new home. There are always a few that won’t be, but that happens in buildings of all income levels.”

Hudson Village community room
The community room at Hudson Village features comfortable seating and high-end finishes comparable with market rate apartment living. Hudson Village in Hollywood, Fla., took home an MHN 2023 Excellence Gold Award in the Best Development & Design: Affordable category. Image courtesy of Housing Trust Group

Blending in better

Another idea promoting better design is that affordable housing should look as much as possible like its market-rate counterpart. Many cities in California and Massachusetts require that a new development have a percentage of affordable units, noted Jenny Schuetz, senior fellow at Brookings Metro. Washington, D.C., where Schuetz is based, also has an inclusionary zoning component, usually around 10 percent of the community. Requirements differ as to whether affordable units need to be identical to market-rate units.

In New York City, affordable units are allowed to be on a lower floor because the higher floors rent for a premium. The affordable units may be somewhat smaller than market-rate units and may also have different appliances and interior finishes.

“In the vast majority of communities, it’s just easier to build all of the apartments to the same standard,” says Schuetz. “Whether there’s a low-income household living in it at any given point in time may shift across the building.”

New York City has been an outlier, because the market rate is so expensive that developers and some residents in market-rate buildings have pushed back. Affordable housing advocates want no distinction between affordable and market-rate units so that a unit’s appearance doesn’t give clues to a resident’s economic status, Schuetz noted.

READ ALSO: What Challenges Will 2024 Pose for Affordable Housing?

Finishes wind up as something of a red herring in the conversation about what qualifies as luxury housing. According to Schuetz, people tend to focus on things like granite countertops and stainless-steel appliances; however, the cost difference between Formica and granite is not that big compared to the cost of developing a community with kitchens and bathrooms that meet the building code. The big budget items are land, labor and materials.

“The finishes matter for people who are choosing a place to live, but it’s not a major driver of cost,” Schuetz pointed out. “You don’t save a ton of money by skimping on the finishes or the appliances or even necessarily on the architectural design component.”

Best-in-class finishes

Public-private partnerships enable affordable housing units to blend seamlessly into market-rate and luxury environments. One such project is Gallery at West Brickell, the largest single-phase public-private development in Miami-Dade County. Located in Miami’s Brickell neighborhood, the mixed-income, mixed-use community is a partnership between Related Urban Development Group, Miami-Dade County Public Housing & Community Development and Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

Gallery at West Brickell will provide affordable, market-rate and workforce housing located next to a new K-8 public school and within walking distance of light-rail transit. The 29-story development will feature 465 apartments, including 163 units for workforce and affordable housing. Those apartments will be designated for residents in three categories: at or below 30 percent, 50 percent and 140 percent of area median income. The remaining units will be priced at market rate. All units, regardless of income level served, will include best-in-class market finishes.

“We do believe that affordable housing in general is at a tipping point, as there is an ever-growing need to address the increased demand for accessible, high-quality, transit-oriented housing. But this doesn’t mean every project has to look the same,” said Albert Milo, president of Related Urban Development Group.

No matter which income level a community is geared to, quality is a top priority, Milo asserts. “While it’s true that there may be a temptation to focus solely on the cheapest option, the long-term success and sustainability of any project depends on its quality and functionality,” he said.

Cutting corners on design elements or construction materials can lead to increased maintenance issues, reduce longevity, and cause resident dissatisfaction, he contends. That jeopardizes the developer’s reputation and potentially diminishes long-term returns. “Affordable housing developers who prioritize cost over quality may indeed find themselves falling behind in the long run,” Milo cautioned.

Learning curve

Developers who are ready to take their affordable housing to the next level might think they can get interior design for a lower price when those services are integrated with an architectural consultant—which might have a small interiors team. Or they might assume they can make interior selections on their own. Not necessarily, according to Kia Weatherspoon, president of Determined by Design.

A better idea, she said, is engaging an interior design consultant early in the process. In 2020, the firm took home an MHN Excellence Silver Award in the Interior Design category for Momentum at Shady Grove, an affordable housing project developed by Stratford Capital Group.

“Some development partners don’t think to incorporate an interior design consultant until after they’ve priced their job at least three times—and they have been pricing with inadequate or subpar building materials,” said Weatherspoon. Many are leaning into standardization of their properties at the guidance of the facilities and maintenance team.

“I think that poses a struggle for affordable housing residents, because now you’re only thinking about material selections from the point of view of, ‘How can we clean this? How can we replace them?’ They’re wanting a longevity that is just not realistic.”

This thinking doesn’t allow affordable developers to respond to trends in product manufacturing, healthier finishes and materials that offer improved maintenance and durability. It also makes it more difficult to bring softness and decoration to resident spaces.

“We have to educate our development partners that there’s a difference between a space for amenities and programming and support services.” One room can’t do all things and be all things. Weatherspoon added: “If we create those types of spaces, but they’re being policed or locked off, it diminishes the purpose of having amenity spaces.”

Looking ahead

Known for pushing the design envelope, Weatherspoon recommended a salt sauna in an upcoming project because this amenity can help ease chronic respiratory illnesses that tend to afflict Black and Brown communities at a higher rate. “That one we didn’t get, but we are looking at amenities from a place of healing, wellness and thinking differently,” she said.

Shifting fitness centers closer to the top of the building and spreading amenities out across multiple floors are other trends she’s seeing. But Weatherspoon warns against latching on to trendy buzzwords like “trauma-informed” design, which is starting to dictate the types of materials that can be used in affordable housing. Determined by Design is currently helping draft standards for the District of Columbia Housing Authority to circumvent this idea.

“We are promoting a better understanding that it’s not the interior building finishes that’s going to get your guaranteed maximum price to where it needs to be,” Weatherspoon said. “You’re not going to get the savings you think by taking all your countertops to plastic laminate when you’ll be replacing them in five years or maybe even sooner.”

Design Excellence in Practice

Every year, the MHN Excellence Awards recognize outstanding achievement in a wide range of categories. The winning projects in the Best Development & Design: Affordable category show what happens when architecture, interior design, branding and marketing are expertly crafted and working together.

  • MHN’s 2023 Bronze winner 290 Malosi by LDP Architecture, Mercy Housing and The Related Cos. of California; 2023 Silver winner Ventana Residences by Presidio Bay Ventures; and 2023 Gold winner Hudson Village by Housing Trust Group and Corwil Architects offer affordable housing with a market-rate vibe.
  • Hudson Village is Hollywood, Fla.’s first affordable high-rise development in more than 20 years. The property is designated for residents who earn 30 percent, 60 percent or 70 percent of AMI. Housing Trust Group’s community provides 96 one- and two-bedroom units ranging in size from 748 to 1,087 square feet. All apartments feature balconies. Rents range from $401 to $1,300.

Amenities include a resort-style swimming pool; a clubhouse/multi-purpose room with a catering kitchen and bar, media center and yoga studio; a package delivery room; and a three-story parking garage. Residents also have access to adult literacy, employment assistance and financial management programs.

Read the March 2024 issue of MHN.

You May Also Like