Article by Greg Lindsay
The New York Times  |  Feburary 2012

Designing a Fix for Housing

by Jeanne Gang and Greg Lindsay


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.

Too often during the bubble, banks and builders shunned thoughtful architecture and urban design in favor of cookie-cutter houses that could be easily repackaged as derivatives to be flipped, while architects snubbed housing to pursue more prestigious projects.

But 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. Designers and policy makers need to see the single-family house as a design dilemma whose elements – architecture, finance and residents’ desires – are inextricably linked.

Take Cicero, Ill., a Chicago suburb that we studied as part of a new exhibition on the housing crisis at the Museum of Modern Art. The town may be infamous as the base of Al Capone or the site of anti-integration protests in the 1950s and ’60s, but today 80 percent of its residents are Latino, half of them foreign born.

Cicero is representative of a suburban transformation that went little noticed during the housing bubble and bust: suburbs have replaced inner cities as the destination of choice for new immigrants.

Indeed, nearly half of all Hispanics now live in suburbs, and new arrivals favor them over cities by two to one. Immigrants are one reason the number of suburban poor climbed 25 percent nationwide between 2000 and 2008. They’re also why Cicero was hit so hard by the housing crisis, with 2,049 foreclosures in 2009 alone – the second highest in Illinois, after Chicago.

Here’s where design comes in. Most of Cicero’s housing is detached, single-family homes. But these are too expensive for many immigrants, so five or six families often squeeze into one of Cicero’s brick bungalows. This creates unstable financial situations, neighborhood tensions and falling real estate values.

Too often, we see such mismatches as a purely financial issue. But instead of forcing families to fit into a house, what if we rearranged the house to fit them?

This doesn’t mean bulldozing Cicero’s housing stock. Instead, it means using existing, underused properties that might be renovated to provide a better fit. In Cicero’s case, that might mean turning to the scores of abandoned factories around it.

Such buildings are often no man’s lands thanks to fears of industrial contamination, which have left older suburbs pockmarked by blight while jobs and homes sprawl outward. But new techniques like “phytoremediation” – using plants like poplar and willow trees to absorb toxins – open the door to safer, less-expensive rehabilitation.

What remains is a wealth of steel, masonry and concrete that could be recycled into flexible live/work units. Rather than force Cicero’s residents to contort themselves to fit the bungalows, their homes can expand or shrink to fit them.

There’s one problem with such a plan: it’s illegal under Cicero’s zoning code. The town’s rules are typical of most suburbs, including the segregation of residential, commercial and industrial facilities; prohibitions on expanding and reusing buildings for new homes and businesses; and tight restrictions on mixed-use properties. Cicero’s code also defines “family” in a way that excludes the large, multigenerational groupings now common across the country.

This has been an issue for urban planners for years, but many of the proposed alternatives to suburban zoning merely swap one restrictive code for another. Only by loosening zoning to allow new combinations of home and work will we be able to bring innovative design to bear on the single-family house.

But new housing forms also demand new types of financing. Starting in the 1990s, subprime lenders targeted low-income and minority suburbs like Cicero, even when many residents would have qualified for prime loans. Latino homeowners tend to disproportionately invest savings in their homes, and as a result they lost two-thirds of their wealth between 2005 and 2009.

One long-term solution would be a type of co-op in which residents buy and sell shares according to their changing needs and circumstances. Unlike traditional co-ops, residents could purchase shares corresponding only to the units they occupy, not the land beneath, which remains in the hands of a “community land trust.” Such a structure would keep housing costs down while limiting residents’ exposure to the market. It would also provide a backstop for struggling homeowners, since the trust would have the legal right to step in and assist residents in the event of foreclosure.

Land trusts have thrived on a small scale in New York City and Chicago, among other places. The federal government should now scale up the efforts by transferring some of the nearly 250,000 foreclosed homes acquired by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Housing Administration into a national trust or a series of local trusts.

Even after the housing crisis is over, we will need to build connections among local government officials, policy makers, financial institutions, residents and architects. Solving the slump requires a multidisciplinary approach combining new design, new paths to homeownership and new zoning to support both – in Cicero and beyond.

Jeanne Gang and Greg Lindsay are, respectively, an architect and a visiting scholar at the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University.

About Greg Lindsay

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Greg Lindsay is a generalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is a 2022-2023 urban tech fellow at Cornell Tech’s Jacobs Institute, where he leads The Metaverse Metropolis — a new initiative exploring the implications of augmented reality at urban scale. He is also a senior fellow of MIT’s Future Urban Collectives Lab, a senior advisor to Climate Alpha, and a non-resident senior fellow of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Strategy Initiative.

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