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A New Design?

From “Designing a Fix for Housing” in the NY Times Opinion Pages:

Recent efforts to fix the housing market — including Thursday’s $26 billion settlement with five of the nation’s biggest banks — have focused purely on the financial aspects of the slump. A permanent solution, however, must go further than money to address issues that have been at the core of the crisis but have been wholly ignored: design and urban planning.

[...] better design is precisely what suburban America needs, particularly when it comes to rethinking the basic residential categories that define it, but can no longer accommodate the realities of domestic life.

Citing the Chicago suburb of Cicero (population: 84,000), the article points out that “cookie-cutter houses” and developments, while easy to replicate, are only ideal for particular circumstances and residential needs. In Cicero, which faced over 2,000 foreclosures back in 2009, most available housing is single-family dwellings, which are far too experience for many local families; and when multiple families live in a home intended for just one, that leads to “unstable financial situations, neighborhood tensions, and falling real estate values.”

In other words, solutions to the housing and economics crises cannot simply involve more housing and more funding — better housing and better designs are equally crucial. The authors suggest “using existing, underused properties that might be renovated to provide a better fit,” along with pursuing entirely new models, such as “a type of co-op in which residents buy and sell shares according to their changing needs and circumstances.” Long-term housing should, of course, be the goal; but should housing options more often be created with the knowledge that short-term flexibility also matters?

In a broader sense, this focus on design in addition to availability and affordability emphasizes the point that improving housing options is a cooperative venture — that, as the authors conclude, “connections among local government officials, policy makers, financial institutions, residents and architects” are key in this project. So how best to create and maintain those connections moving forward? And ensure that sustainability goes hand in hand with affordability?

Learn more about Catalogue’s 44 housing nonprofits, all focused on Greater Washington, right here.

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