Building affordable rental housing isn’t easy. In addition to arranging multiple layers of debt financing, and attracting equity capital in the right combination to keep the property within reach of low- and moderate-income renters, developers frequently confront opposition from people already living in the community. Among the many concerns raised, future neighbors think affordable housing hurts property values, and just won’t fit into the community’s aesthetic. Both turn out to be incorrect. For example, a recent study by Trulia of many communities around the country where large numbers of affordable rental properties have been built debunks the value concern. Trulia found that home prices for the most part are not negatively affected by affordable rental properties that are nearby.
But what about aesthetic? Does affordable housing stick out like an ugly duckling? Maybe 50 years ago when affordable rental apartments mostly were brown brick boxes that lacked imagination.
Affordable rental housing built today looks nothing like the public housing from decades ago. Today’s affordable apartments and rental homes often are stylish. Some are even winning design awards. These homes are imagined by architects who understand that housing is more than four walls; housing is a community asset.
These architects are selected and guided in their design work by developers—often who are nonprofits—who have a long-run stake in the community. This means the builders are focused on the vibrancy, growth and economic development of the neighborhoods where the homes are located.
For these reasons, nonprofit developers choose architects who share their vision of a strong, sustainable community where people of many different income levels could live. But how does a nonprofit choose an architect that aligns with its vision of building housing that is simultaneously affordable and a community asset?
Sharing the development as community asset vision
Choosing an architect is “not about strict criteria,” said Walter Moreau, executive director of Foundation Communities in Austin, Texas. “Like hiring someone for a job…you can’t go from a resume, you have to interview and test and get to know the candidates.”
With 18 communities spread around the Austin metro area, Foundation Communities helps to provide affordable housing to thousands of people, often families, and in the process has gotten to know a lot of potential architecture partners.
Moreau explained that the organization interviewed five architects for its M Station development. “Each came to the office at noon and met with our team to dream/design/kick around ideas for the project. We had five really different folks submit, but at the end of the week we had a clear consensus choice that we felt good about.”
Steve Kirk, CEO of Rural Neighborhoods, a developer of single-family rental communities in south Florida, said that one of the most important selection criteria for him seems basic, but surprisingly isn’t done by a lot of developers.
“The one thing I encourage everyone to do who is choosing an architect is pretty simple: go see their work. Walk through it. You would be surprised how many people might see the rendering of a project and say, ‘Great, that will work,’ but don’t go out and see how the finished work the firm has done fits into the real community.”
“When I started in this business back in the 1990s, design wasn’t as important a consideration,” Kirk said. “Design matters and we wanted to use residential multifamily housing to help change the way a lower-income single-family community was perceived.”
Marcia Thornhill, director of real estate development at Boston-based Nuestra Comunidad Development Corporation underscored the importance of choosing an architect who is willing to work with the community when developing a design.
“In a city like Boston, it’s important for us to work with an architect who knows that we will look for community input on our developments. No one likes to have a building just appear in their community without their involvement,” Thornhill says.
Nuestra and many other developers in urban markets have to work with city government—sometimes layers of city government—on design approvals.
“We want an architect that has experience working with the city and is able to collaborate with that team to get an innovative design through to approval,” she notes.
But Nuestra doesn’t exclude architects without city experience. For Thornhill, limiting the pool of potential architects—even when a firm doesn’t have what she considers a critical skill—doesn’t serve her organization’s goal of developing great looking affordable rental housing.
“We’re co-developing a project called Mattapan Station, and we have two architects working on the project,” she said. “They’re linked via a joint venture. One has done amazing work internationally and in other cities, but has no Boston relationship. We like them because they bring a non-cookie cutter design to the project. The firm is paired with a well-regarded technical architect who has great experience with the city. We think it’s a winning pairing for our community.”
Enabling creativity also means not focusing on pinching pennies, according to Kirk from Rural Neighborhoods. He explained that building affordable rental housing doesn’t mean lowest cost at every turn, and an architect who could balance those competing forces is important.
“We have tried to give a number of the architects that we’ve picked some ability to break the mold,” Kirk explained. “We set parameters such as the target cost per square foot, and we may need to adjust some of the materials to keep costs in line, but in the end there’s give and take that results in a quality, great looking product that everyone could be proud of.”
For nonprofit developers that produce a lot of volume, sometimes the architect decision comes down to choosing an outside firm or creating the in-house expertise necessary to build great homes. In-house was the route that Christiansburg, Va.-based Community Housing Partners (CHP) took back in 2012.
CHP opened the Community Design Studio (CDS) in 2001 as a subsidiary social enterprise business, but has used the team as in-house architects for years. The decision to create a stand-alone architectural design firm came down to simple business math, according to Colin Arnold, vice president of architecture and lead architect at CDS.
“I think the scale to start (thinking about going in-house) is where the cost of architectural fees that one would need to spend in the market can support the salary and operations of the initial architect. The size of projects probably need to be at the scale of multi-family developments, or in the case of single family, where there are a quantity of homes being developed where the architectural services required could support an architectural staff member,” Arnold said.
The in-house model also allows for quicker problem solving, especially those problems that may arise related to cost.
“By having development, architecture, and construction under one umbrella, the departments are able to easily collaborate for an integrated project development process,” said Arnold. “Ultimately, this helps protect from project cost overruns, reduces our risk as the owner, enables scheduling issues to be addressed in a timely manner, and expedites the sharing of information. As a result, CHP benefits from more effective and more affordable design/build capabilities.”
While different in approach, the bottom line is that developers who follow any of these strategies when choosing an architect will end up not only building great looking, quality affordable housing, but will build up a community, too.
Thomas P. Deyo is vice president of real estate programs at NeighborWorks America, a national community development nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. The organization supports a network of more than 245 local nonprofit organizations that own or manage more than 145,000 rental apartments.