karl marx hoff collage final line work

Social Housing in America: Architects Must Answer the Call

If you follow housing policy in America, you may have noticed a particular term cropping up a lot recently: social housing. Maybe you’ve read a longform academic article, live in a city that is codifying a social-housing policy like Seattle or Atlanta, or seen one of the recent mentions in The New York Times, highlighting U.S. and Viennese success stories. On the design front, Dezeen is running a social-housing revival series. 

As the term is coming into common use, varied definitions have emerged. In the interest of casting a wide net, the distinction I’m interested in within the American context is the idea that governments (federal, state, local) should be more actively involved in the production and provision of housing. This distinction is important, because we already have a dizzying array of policies at different levels of government guiding housing production in America. Good work has been done recently in California to reform and streamline housing production, and these changes are important. But a growing chorus is asking whether incremental changes will be enough (they won’t), or whether we need systemic reform in the face of a persistent housing crisis across the country (we do).

At the American Institute of Architects (AIA) national conference this past summer, I organized a panel on social housing. At the same time, I was advocating with East Bay for Everyone to build support for social housing in California. That advocacy initially resulted in a white paper, “California Housing Corporation: The Case for a Public Sector Developer,” written by one of my fellow panelists, Derek Sagehorn. The paper calls for the development of a California Housing Corporation that would actively participate in the production of housing and inject some innovation into our currently stuck housing paradigm.

I was a little surprised that the panel proposal was accepted. I was further humbled when I was invited onto the AIA Podcast to talk about it. Folks from across the country came to listen to our presentation, ask incisive questions, and express interest in keeping the conversation going. With the national audience, one theme that emerged was skepticism that social housing could work in the U.S., that somehow our society is essentially incompatible with it. Another question was what to do in more challenging political environments: “Of course you all can have social housing in California. What could we do in the state where I’m from?”

One response to these points is to think about local initiatives that could be more nimble. Efforts at the federal and state levels will undoubtedly be slower to get going. In the meantime, advocates working at local and/or regional levels can get to work (see Seattle and Atlanta). This may lead to regional differences, and that would be great. The previously mentioned long-running success stories in Bartholomew County, Maryland, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, are prime examples of social housing working at the local level in the U.S, and new victories are slowly emerging. 

Karl-Marx-Hof is a community owned apartment building, in Vienna, Austria.  Vienna is visited for its imperial palaces but also for its social housing: “capital of low rent” for nearly a century, the city has defended a model of affordable housing that makes it an European exception. Photo by Joe Kkamer, via APP.


Starting at the local scale is, in fact, in line with the history of public housing in the U.S. The New York City Housing Authority was the first agency of its kind, created in 1934. This was followed at the federal level with the 1937 Housing Act, substantially written by Catherine Bauer Wurster. Wurster was an early and lifelong advocate for public housing in the U.S., but by 1957 she could see that rigid policies and initial compromises to limit public housing to low income groups had lead to a dreary deadlock in public housing, stating:

“… it now seems there were two fundamental fallacies in the original approach, one a matter of basic policy formulation and administration, the other a matter of physical planning and design. The 1937 approach was natural, valid, and even necessary at the time, and it represented progress in relation to what had gone before. But it jelled too soon, became too rigid, without allowing for flexible adaptation to American values and conditions.”


In California, where a persistent housing crisis is forcing innovative policy thinking, we’re taking a fresh look at social housing. In 2023, SB 555, The Stable Affordable Housing Act authored by Aisha Wahab, was signed into law. SB 555 is a nonbinding “study bill,” and while it doesn’t kickstart production today, it sets some ambitious goals600,000 units of social housing through production and acquisition in five years, 1.2 million in 10 yearsand makes some forceful value statements:

“The Legislature finds and declares all of the following:

(1) The private housing market has failed to meet the needs of the vast majority of California residents, who are unable to afford market rents …

(3) Affordable housing produced through the federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program is an essential part of California’s housing stock, but is not sufficient to meet the need for housing affordable to those who cannot afford market rents.”

These are bold statements, calling for bold action, but that is what the housing crisis in California demands. And this bill didn’t squeak through. In the legislature, a supermajority voted for it, and a governor who seems to have his eyes on the White House signed it. Further, it’s notable that many housing advocates across the country are reaching the same conclusions. It’s not just a California phenomenon.

As the plan for social housing in California is being developed in the coming months, we need to keep the distinct opportunities presented by social housing in mind. As the text in SB 555 states, the current system utilizing federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) is essential but is not meeting the population’s needs. Over the years, the programs have gotten locked into their own dreary deadlock as developers and architects consider a limited range of solutions, optimized to perform well on funding applications. Here are a few ways social housing can add to the California housing landscape. 


Mixed Income

Typical LIHTC projects have income requirements dictating who can live in them. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, many successful programs across the world (as well as that program in Maryland) have built sustained success by providing housing serving a broader range of incomes. This model addresses a few issues. With mixed income buildings, some residents could be paying market-rate rents, helping the public developer be less dependent on outside subsidies or, in some cases, not dependent on public subsidy at all. Either at the scale of the overall portfolio or at individual buildings, we could have a financially viable entity without having to fight for state and/or federal funding. This helps insulate social housing from a scenario in which future funding is cut; it also  helps the public developer maintain a portion of its buildings as below market rate homes in perpetuity. This stands in contrast to the typical LIHTC model, in which below market rate units can be converted to market rate after 15 years.


Mixed Tenancy

As my fellow panelist Alex Schafran pointed out, a healthy housing environment offers a diversity of tenure options. At community meetings for affordable housing projects, people often come up and ask us why the homes are all rental, or why senior housing is segregated from family housing. This, too, is a product of the dominant approach to affordable housing under the LIHTC model. While there is nothing inherently wrong with rental apartments, the reality is that folks are often best served by different types of tenancies throughout their life. When below-market-rate apartments are the only type of tenancy available, a family may adapt and find a way to fit into a three-bedroom apartment, which brings me to the next point.

Aging Against the Machine, by Neeraj Bhatia, Ignacio G. Galan, Karen Kubey, and an interdisciplinary team.


Unit Types

To receive funding for family housing under the typical LIHTC structure, minimum percentages of two- and three-bedroom homes must be provided. Minimum unit sizes are set, and for projects to remain cost-competitive, the unit sizes hover around the minimums. Again, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with these controls, but they produce a limited range of solutions for families to live in, over and over again. A new public developer could recognize that families come in multitudinous arrangements, some of which might not fit well into a three-bedroom apartment, and could start building a wider variety of homes to meet a wider range of needs.


Public Good

Finally, a public developer should build with the public good in mind. This change in mindset could unlock a new perspective on what sustainability and resilience measures make sense. With LIHTC developments in California, projects are often incentivized to incorporate sustainability features, up to a point. They have to remain cost-competitive on a per unit basis, and also have to consider that there may come a time in say, 15 years, when the building may change hands. 

Linking to the mixed-income point above, with public subsidy comes the pressure to keep costs under control. If a public developer has a building that requires no public subsidy and wants to invest in a system that will easily pay for itself in 25 years, the added up-front cost for that system becomes less fraught.

Further, a public-sector housing developer should invest in healthy materials. My colleagues have been conducting research into the various classes of harmful materials that are common in our built environment. These chemicals are often present in cost-effective materials, and as such are difficult to eliminate from affordable housing. A public-sector developer weighing its impact on public health should opt for eliminating these chemicals from its homes—even if that means spending more to do so. 

In 2017, AIA National endorsed fundamental right housing, leading to the question: What are we doing to make that a reality? After a robust discussion of the economics and policy particulars at our AIA panel, one audience member commented that we should also be talking about the social potential of social housing. That’s where architects need to step up. The policy particulars are important and will be heavily debated, but as my fellow panelist and convener of the AIA Right to Housing Working Group, Karen Kubey said, “People don’t live in policy.” Architects have a responsibility to the public to visualize the potential of social housing in America. Activists and policymakers are rising to meet the nationwide housing crisis with new ideas. Architects need to join them.

Featured image by the author. 


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