By Delma Palma

Resilience in Housing Diversity

The subject of housing affordability has become a nationwide concern, affecting cities and suburbs alike.

By 2050, it is estimated that 70 percent of the world’s population will be urban.* At the same time, issues such as climate change and subsequent natural disasters, decreasing housing affordability, and mass migration to urban centers will amplify the stresses on the built environment.  As we face these impending challenges, we must do everything possible to plan and build our communities to increase their resilience.

A resilient place is one that can withstand the stress of a growing population on its environment, infrastructure, economy and housing stock. One essential trait is the presence of different forms of housing that accommodate its inhabitants.  A mix of types offers the flexibility that can easily respond to the differing needs of communities as they change over time. It allows communities to house people of all ages and incomes during times of social and economic change.  Just as biodiversity in the natural environment creates healthy, resilient habitats, housing diversity in the built environment creates strong, enduring communities.

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The subject of housing affordability has become a nationwide concern, affecting cities and suburbs alike. According to HUD (Department of Housing and Urban Development), “an estimated 12 million renter and homeowner households now pay more than 50 percent of their annual incomes for housing.”(2) This unsustainable situation can be seen from single-person to larger family households. There is a significant discrepancy across the country between the housing types that respond to current demographics, and those that are being constructed. Higher density luxury apartment buildings are saturating urban markets that are in desperate need of a diversity of housing types that support a range of incomes and demographics. A diversity of housing types supports the full spectrum of housing demands and builds economic resilience.

Architects and urban designers must work to create sustainable places that overcome these complex problems. The Congress for New Urbanism, an NGO dedicated to making walkable, vibrant cities, proposes a solution that promotes the creation of missing middle housing—creating lower density multifamily housing that helps meet the growing demand for walkable urban living.(3) In other words, housing such as smaller walk-up apartments, flats, or courtyard houses, increase density while maintaining affordability. These types of buildings fill a noticeable gap in the housing market, and can respond to the spike in demand for the urban housing that can accommodate changing demographics.

Currently most ‘middle housing’ projects are created on a smaller scale or as infill developments, slowly and incrementally filling the demand. While the movement is gaining traction, it is struggling to deal with market demands at the rate with which needs are increasing.

This is where larger firms are especially well-positioned to design diverse communities that are equipped to handle the demands of the future. With the scope of projects that large firms typically take on, it is possible to design and construct whole communities with missing middle housing—not built on a lot by lot basis.  This model or “big architecture” can promote the need for both variety and affordability in communities. Its diversity helps communities withstand change, whether it be variations in market demand or shifts in living patterns and family composition.

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In the more than 485,000 housing units that Torti Gallas has designed, we have always made it a priority to promote a diversity of housing types while also promoting financial, social, and cultural diversity. Westlawn Gardens, for example, developed in conjunction with the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee, will create 708 new housing units. Forty-two percent are apartments, 10 percent are flex units, and 48 percent are townhomes, all of which include a combination of affordable housing, market-rate rental and homeownership units. In the flex units, the ground floor unit can be converted to retail, allowing the community to plan for a future where commercial demand might grow.

Another successful example is Park Morton in Washington, DC.  While still in its entitlement phase, the final project will provide 189 units in a neighborhood that has gentrified rapidly over the past 10 years. There is a demand for density along this main corridor of the city, but the surrounding community is a traditional townhouse neighborhood, typical of the District of Columbia. The plan mixes a small apartment building, stacked flats and townhouse strings to seamlessly integrate the project density into the surrounding neighborhood context.

The successful history of Torti Gallas’ mixed housing neighborhoods proves that housing diversity leads to resilient, and therefore sustainable, communities and cities.  As we confront the challenges of the 21st century, “big architecture” will play a major role in promoting, designing, and validating the mixed-housing model. It is our responsibility as designers to diversify our housing stock to accommodate a variety of households and income levels. It is this diversity that will enhance the resilience of our cities, enabling their residents to thrive.

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