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The Affordability Paradox
New urbanism is great in concept, but can it be affordable?

Call it the affordability paradox.

Diversity, including income diversity, is essential to new urbanism. To be authentic communities, and not just yuppie theme parks, traditional neighborhood developments (TNDs) have to include a mix of people -- of various ages and incomes.

One of the new urbanist principles reads: "Within neighborhoods, a broad range of housing types and price levels can bring people of diverse ages, races, and incomes into daily interaction, strengthening the personal and civic bonds essential to an authentic community.

And yet the charge of elitism often clings to new urbanism. "Can We Afford New Urbanism?" Pine Magazine asked in a much-noticed article last year.

Emily Talen of Arizona State University in Tempe, co-chair of the Affordable Housing Initiative of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), has done a study of greenfield TNDs and found them "incredibly unaffordable," she says.

She surveyed 234 completed market-rate TNDs built without public subsidies or inclusionary zoning requirements and found that only about 15 percent included units affordable for those with the local area median income.

The evidence suggests to her that it is a "delusion" to think that market forces and a variety of price points will suffice to make a TND a truly diverse community.

Part of the issue is that buyers into new urbanist developments are paying a premium for the design itself -- even for small units. "Bad design is the only known technique to keep housing affordable," Andrés Duany remarked provocatively at one point during CNU XV in Philadelphia this past May. Indeed -- would any development, new urbanist or otherwise -- be seen as a success if its prices did not rise?

There are certainly examples, however, of architects and developers embracing the challenge of providing affordable housing.

The developers of Mashpee Commons, a TND on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, have incorporated
"deed-restricted affordable" housing in three of its core neighborhoods.
Credit:  Mashpee Commons Limited Partnership

"We need to provide for the most diverse communities we can," said Douglas Storrs of Cornish Associates, developers of the Mashpee Commons TND on Cape Cod, Mass. "We're confident that the income diversity we seek is not only possible but critical to the success of a new community."

He plays down the "bad design" comment, with a chuckle, as one of Duany's occasional "bombs," and cites it as an example of "healthy debate" within new urbanism.

At Mashpee Commons, the three core neighborhoods have been permitted for 496 dwellings, of which 96 -- or 20 percent of the total -- are "deed-restricted affordable," or "large A affordable, as Storrs puts it. These range from a studio above a store to some single-family houses. Other units are "market rate affordable," he said, typically smaller rental apartments.

Owners of the deed-restricted units still get the benefits of homeownership, including a share of appreciation. The rest goes back into a land trust, to help maintain a stock of affordable units in the community. Still, Storrs points out, for these first-time home-buyers, "the return is immense," given that they may have put down less than $5,000,

"It's a viable and very sustainable model. Our model in Mashpee could be used anywhere."

Affordable housing in TNDs needs to be scattered throughout the development, Storrs and other developers say. "Here in New England we have some wonderful historical models, with a broad mix of housing on the same block -- with a four-bedroom house next to a cottage," said Storrs.

Another key is that the affordable units need to be outwardly indistinguishable from the surrounding units -- the same standards, construction style, and materials.

The idea is "that you don't know who's subsidized and who isn't unless you see their tax returns; income is invisible," explained Donald Carter, president of Urban Design Associates (UDA) in Pittsburgh.

But if the outside of an affordable unit has to match its neighbors, the inside doesn't. Skipping marble countertops and high-end bathrooms holds purchase prices down. Creative financing -- through government or other aid programs -- is another element in the affordability equation.

But the most important factor is size. If location, location and location are the three most important principles in real estate, "then affordability is size, size and size," said Storrs.

The affordability debate among new urbanists is playing out as housing in general has become much more expensive relative to people's incomes.

Carter, at UDA, points out that across the country, large employers such as hospitals and universities are worrying about housing for their employees - including professors. Local governments, too, are concerned about "workforce housing.

Carter sees "a lot" of affordable new urbanism, but mostly infill projects in the cities rather than greenfields out in the suburbs. His own firm's Crawford Square mixed-income project is in downtown Pittsburgh, for instance. UDA's Park Duvalle development, in Louisville, Ky., is helping reclaim a blighted area in the city's West End.

"The economic models are different in the cities and in the suburbs," said Carter. In the greenfields, there's often "less drive" to incorporate affordable housing -- unless there is some kind of mandate.

Which, increasingly, there is.

Vince Guarino, in Monterey, Calif., is a spokesman for East Garrison LLC, a joint venture redeveloping part of Fort Ord, a decommissioned Army base. "We're the poster child for the government requirements to provide affordable housing," he said.

Monterey County requires any subdivision above 10 units to make 20 percent of them affordable. East Garrison's Phase I is about a year off, but the whole project will include 1,400 units, including live/work spaces for artists in a renovated barracks.

Nowhere else in the country, Guarino argues, are housing costs as out of line with incomes as in Monterey County, Calif., where, he says, the average house costs half a million dollars and only a quarter of the population can afford it.

Monterey County's coastal regions have the kind of scenery that makes visitors think they've died and gone to heaven, or at least taken up residence within the pages of a Sierra Club calendar. Farther inland, though, "we're the nation's salad bowl," said Guarino. Stories abound of migrant agricultural laborers living packed 20 to a house, or even in hillside caves.

An antigrowth attitude predominates in the community, Guarino says, and the state law practically invites people to sue to block development.

"Even good projects get sued," commented Keith McCoy, principal in Urban Community Partners, part of the consortium developing East Garrison.

All of this adds up to an acute housing shortage, and an environment in which 1,400 houses are a very big deal, and not getting sued is, too. East Garrison is the only one of the major Fort Ord redevelopment projects that has not been sued.

Which leads to another element of affordability: charrettes and other public processes that make all stakeholders feel included. If time is money, then shortened approval time makes for greater affordability. Not that these projects go quickly. "But we were very organized," McCoy said. "We did a lot of thinking about this project -- how can we do this and not get sued?"

Because so many parties had claims of one kind of another on the former Army base, the developers held a charrette -- in fact, they held two, one on the broad concepts and one more specific. They even invited the land use watchdog group. "They were shocked," says McCoy. But by soliciting everyone's input, the developers were able to get unanimous support from each commission that had to approve the project. And he's convinced that including affordable units "makes for a better community - more diverse and interesting neighborhoods, frankly," he says.