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Housing Perspectives

Research, trends, and perspective from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies

What Can We Learn from Attempts to Reduce the Cost of Affordable Housing?

Midwestern CDCs trying to build affordable homes that do not require development subsidies have identified three potentially promising strategies: building smaller homes, utilizing factory-built homes, and creatively designing houses to get more out of them. In a new working paper that grows out my work as an Edward M. Gramlich Fellow in Community and Economic Development I conclude that while each technique presents opportunities for cost savings, each also comes with its own set of challenges.

The fellowship, which is co-sponsored by the Joint Center for Housing Studies and NeighborWorks® America, also expanded my horizons because for years, my conception of new “affordable housing” had been limited to the standard multifamily properties developed in larger urban areas. This was the type of affordable housing I had seen since moving to the Boston area, as well as working for an affordable advocacy organization in the San Francisco Bay Area prior to attending the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

The Rambler, a single-family home constructed by the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership. The home is 1,092 square feet on the main floor with another 1,092 square feet of unfinished basement space that can be converted into living space or more bedrooms at a later date. This home was constructed in 2014 with an asking price of $153,900.

As a Gramlich Fellow in the summer of 2015, I was exposed to a new region and new approach to affordable housing. The Midwestern CDCs, which were part of NeighborWorks® America’s national network, often had in-house general contractors and focused on building and selling affordable single-family homes, in both urban and rural areas. Given the dearth of housing subsidies, particularly subsidies for affordable housing in rural areas, these CDCs were trying to find cost-saving construction techniques that would allow them to build affordable housing without development subsidies.

Smaller homes are theoretically cheaper to build because they simply require fewer materials and less construction time. Once occupied, these houses not only can be cheaper to heat or cool but also will cost less to maintain. Smaller footprints also make it possible to build these homes on smaller or irregularly shaped lots, which helps expand the options for CDCs.Through reading popular literature on home construction, analyzing building trends, conducting interviews with CDC leaders, and visiting new developments in the Midwest, it became clear that CDCs were interested in pursuing three potential cost saving techniques: building smaller homes, using factory-built homes, and creatively designing houses to get more out of them.

However, cost savings are not always realized when buildings are smaller. Once land and other development costs are factored in, it is possible that building smaller homes will be only slightly cheaper than building larger homes on the same lot. Moreover, the marginal cost of constructing a few hundred more square feet might allow the CDC to sell the house for more money while still keeping it affordable. Some CDC leaders also worry that producing affordable homes that are much smaller than new market-rate homes would create obvious distinctions between income levels and stigmatize the people living in the new, smaller homes. Finally, while building smaller can be smart for a number of reasons, most people still want bigger homes as evidenced by the fact that average house sizes have been increasing and have recently surpassed pre-recession levels. This suggests that without a shift in the overall market, smaller homes may not be a particularly appealing option for CDCs trying to build affordable housing.

While factory-built construction techniques are not necessarily new, they are new to many CDCs. Many Midwestern CDCs are currently experimenting with (or exploring the possibility of using) both modular homes and homes made from structural insulated panels (SIPs). Factory-built homes have the benefit of being produced mostly indoors and using assembly line techniques, which can significantly reduce onsite construction time and protect against weather delays, theft, vandalism, etc. Moreover, homes built in factory-controlled settings can be tighter and more energy efficient and make more efficient usage of building materials (which should reduce their cost).

Like building smaller, however, the cost savings that are touted in popular literature are harder to realize in practice. If CDCs, architects, contractors, and subcontractors do not have enough experience working with factory-built housing, then the development process can hit major roadblocks that negate the hypothetical cost savings that would result from a shorter construction period and lower production costs. In fact, some CDCs that experimented with these techniques ended up with homes that cost far more than they would have cost using traditional stick-built techniques.

Finally, creatively designing houses can supplement the previous construction types to get the most out of new homes. This can come in many forms. Designing attached accessory dwelling units will add more units to the housing stock and can supplement the primary tenant’s income.  Co-housing development can utilize scale and reduce the per-owner development costs. Open floor plans can make smaller homes more palatable and unfinished buildouts can reduce costs while allowing families to later customize their home to meet their particular needs.

In the end, there is no silver bullet that can be used to build affordable single-family homes without a development subsidy. However, there are many techniques that, when combined, could produce significant cost savings. CDC leaders interested in pursuing these approaches should remember that the benefits of these techniques, as described in popular literature, do not always materialize in practice. Therefore, CDC leaders should learn from others who have already experimented with them. They should also establish strong relationships with architects and contractors who have experience with these techniques, so that they reduce the likelihood of delays that would drive up costs. Hopefully, by persevering and learning from others, the CDCs can increase the production of affordable homes.

Sam LaTronica, who graduated from the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 2016, was a 2015 recipient of the TheEdward M. Gramlich Fellowship in Community and Economic Development, which is co-sponsored by NeighborWorks®America and the Joint Center for Housing Studies.