How do the notoriously complicated funding and approval processes for affordable housing shape the design of those projects? In particular, are these elements so complex that they make it difficult, if not impossible, to incorporate high-quality design into the planning and execution of affordable housing?
In a new paper, jointly published by the Joint Center and Enterprise Community Partners, Inc., and being presented at a Research Seminar tomorrow (Friday, March 23), Donald Taylor-Patterson, a second year Master of Urban Planning student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and former Joint Center student research assistant, and I examine these questions as they pertain to Massachusetts in general, and to greater Boston in particular.
Four key findings emerged from this research. First, the LIHTC process in Massachusetts generally encourages design excellence for “invisible” project elements, particularly those that can be measured such as energy efficiency or accessibility. Second, the harder-to-measure “visible” or “aesthetic” design elements are often the product of the informal and formal ways that community groups and local governments review proposed affordable housing developments.To do so, we drew on three sources of information. First, we carefully reviewed the state’s Qualified Allocation Plan, which are the guidelines the state uses to allocate its annual allotment of federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC), a key funding source for affordable housing. Second, Taylor-Patterson interviewed 18 leading experts in the field and we reviewed the insights that came from those discussions. Finally, Taylor-Patterson spoke with participants at Enterprise’s 2017 Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute (AHDLI), an annual event that brings together non-profit developers and design professionals to discuss how to improve the design of proposed affordable housing projects. (The research, it bears mention, did not attempt to define “design excellence,” which can be subjective. Instead, the research focused on whether and how key actors and processes assessed the design quality of affordable housing developments.)
Third, while funding and approval processes sometimes crowd out efforts to improve design, key actors can bring design back into the picture, particularly if they can create (or take advantage of) well-timed processes that bring together developers, designers, and others for design-focused discussions that take funding and other constraints into account. Finally, although there is widespread agreement on some aspect of design excellence, the fact that each project’s physical, political, and financial context is unique makes it almost impossible to use as regulatory process to specify what design excellence entails.
Taken together, these findings underscore how the complex interplay of funding, design, regulatory processes, and local politics creates both challenges and opportunities to ensure that affordable housing projects are designed and built in ways most likely to benefit both residents and neighborhoods. They also suggest that realizing design excellence for affordable housing projects is difficult but achievable. This is particularly true if the work plan for project development encourages and incentivizes processes that allow project designs to be challenged and pushed to a higher standard.