Low-Income Housing With Emphasis on Design

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, August 6, 2005

In June, I served on the jury for the first John M. Clancy Award for Socially Responsible Housing, sponsored by the Boston Society of Architects, that city's chapter of the American Institute of Architects. I wondered about the term "socially responsible" housing. Does it mean that all other housing is somehow socially irresponsible?

Setting aside semantic questions, this long-overdue national award program was established to recognize outstanding new examples of low-income urban housing or urban housing for special, disadvantaged populations.

The program is named in honor of the late Boston architect whose firm, Goody, Clancy & Associates, has a distinguished record of designing urban housing that is architecturally noteworthy yet also affordable.

The jury reviewed 56 projects submitted by architects or organizations from 20 states. Many of the projects were in California, in part a reflection of the size of that state's population and workforce.

Inventive design is also more achievable in some California regions because of relatively liberal zoning regulations, hospitable climate free from freezing and thawing, nearly year-round use of outdoor spaces and courtyards, lower labor costs, looser urban fabric and a freestyle architectural culture less constrained by history and tradition.

Entries were diverse in context and site conditions, functional programs, size, architectural language and types of occupancy. Among the submissions were multi-unit clusters for nuclear families, federally financed HOPE VI developments to replace aging public housing and transition housing for abused women and the homeless.

Building types also varied, including single-family detached houses, rowhouses and low- and mid-rise apartment buildings. Some of the submissions involved both new and rehabilitated structures. Some included amenities such as landscaped open spaces, protected play areas for children, day-care facilities, communal laundries, counseling centers and on-site parking.

In a few mixed-use, mixed-income complexes, "socially responsible" housing was but one component of a larger menu of other functions: market-rate rental and for-sale housing units, stores, restaurants and fitness centers.

Nevertheless, most entries were workforce housing initiatives developed through collaborative, public-private sponsorship, with extensive community participation in design and development. And most were financed by a mix of debt and equity funding, subsidized partly through low-income housing tax credits available to private-equity investors.

The jury selected eight entries for awards -- four are in the West, three are in the Northeast and one is in the Midwest. The winners have not yet been announced.

Narrowing the field to eight was difficult. Most of the submissions merited consideration and about a third of them made the next-to-last cut.

In most AIA-sponsored design award programs, juries are expected to focus their attention and base their judgments almost exclusively on aesthetic qualities. That entails assessing attributes of form and composition visible only in photographs and drawings. Other considerations tend to fall by the wayside. Think of design awards as beauty contests.

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