The New York Times recently ran an article about “seasteading,” or the idea that floating islands are the key to surviving the flooding, globally warming world (see also my piece that ran in January on the notion). Last year the Times also ran an article hyping 3D-printed homes and a man in Austin, Texas, who calls himself “Professor Dumpster.” Professor Dumpster has an idea: What if houses weren’t sodden, sedentary things, but were freewheeling and mobile, the kind of things you could move around the world on a whim?
This, he claims, is an answer to one of the world’s great crises — the lack of affordable housing — and he’s built prototypes of these housing pods for his company, Kasita. The logic for these ideas, at first glance, is seductive and makes some sense: In the case of Professor Dumpster, towers of the tiny relocatable units could pack a lot of residents into underutilized lots, and owners could move with their homes to new towers as lots are redeveloped and the city expands. These are kind of crazy ideas, but these are kind of crazy times, or so these inventors seem to say.
Kasita’s contemporary “mobile home”; image via Co.Exist (Fast Company)
The problem is that though these ideas might be really fun to look at, they don’t take serious problems very seriously. Consider Kasita. A portable housing unit might make life more convenient for affluent Americans in cities like New York and San Francisco, but it won’t do much for the millions of people who rely on government assistance and the people who, after decades of racist policies, are still being held back from homeownership.
The New York Times article on Kasita quoted the UN-Habitat’s statistic that one in eight people globally live in slums, and by 2025, 1.6 billion people will lack access to basic housing, but the article doesn’t mention that almost none of those people could afford “an iPhone [they] can live in.” There are many affordable housing crises: one affecting relatively affluent people in astronomically expensive cities and others affecting the world’s most vulnerable people. Only one of them seems to be getting splashy design attention.
Putting aside the rest of the world for the moment, the U.S. alone has an enormous and enormously complex housing problem. After the Great Recession and the subprime mortgage crisis, many Americans have been forced from the buying market into the renting market, and supply hasn’t kept up with demand. As a result, rents are rising faster than salaries, more than a third of Americans are paying more than 30 percent of their income on rent, and half of those people are paying more than 50 percent of their income on rent. That means more than one in 10 Americans are spending more than half of their income on rent. Half of their income.
At the same time, the country is losing 125,000 affordable rental units every year, and the people with the least money are being hurt the most. As Stockton Williams, executive director of the Terwilliger Center for Housing at the Urban Land Institute, recently told Curbed, “The annual cost to taxpayers of the federal income tax deductions for home mortgage interest and property taxes, which mainly benefit relatively affluent households, is double what the government spends on all lower-income housing programs combined.” Nationally, there are only 28 units that are affordable for every 100 households making at or below 30 percent of area median income. Not a single county in the country has enough affordable housing for people with extremely low incomes.
This is just looking at the country generally; it’s worse in places like Oakland, Brooklyn or San Jose. But it’s not just a question of location; it’s also a question of race. Racial segregation is still a large problem in this country, so much so that in 2015 the Obama administration created a new rule that required cities to regularly present data to the federal government to prove that their neighborhoods were desegregating in order to keep receiving federal housing assistance.
This rule, as I described in an earlier article, is under threat from the new administration. Much of this segregation is held over from decades past when the government’s Home Owner’s Loan Corporation would map black and Hispanic neighborhoods so that banks could avoid offering home loans to those areas, a practice known as ‘redlining.’ Because of this and other forms of discrimination, black and Hispanic families couldn’t afford to buy their homes, which meant that they didn’t have property to pass to their children, and over time, generations of black and Hispanic families have become much less wealthy than their white counterparts.
According to a 2013 study from the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University, “the total wealth gap between white and African-American families” has nearly tripled, “increasing from $85,000 in 1984 to $236,500 in 2009,” with (lack of) homeownership being the largest driver of that gap. Racial inequality in this country is getting worse, and a lack of access to affordable housing is a big part of the problem.
Map showing redlining in Los Angeles. Neighborhoods are graded from 1 to 4 with Fourth Grade districts being the predominantly minority areas marked in red. Image courtesy the Periphery Center
Racial inequality is not just a residue from earlier, more biased times, either. As reported by Jamelle Bouie at Slate, in 2008 the General Social Survey, a long-term study that follows trends in American attitudes on a variety of topics, found that “20 percent of whites said their ideal neighborhood was all white, 25 percent said it had no blacks, and 33 percent said it had neither Hispanics nor Asians.”
“And only 25 percent of white respondents said they would live in a neighborhood where one-half of their neighbors were black.” This kind of racial bias is what drove redlining, as banks assumed that neighborhoods with more racial minorities were less desirable, which in turn drove down home values, and wealth, of minority families. Clearly racial bias in housing is alive and well.
Map showing redlining in Chicago; image courtesy the Washington Post
So, while housing pods and floating islands are great experiments, architects could draw real attention to the affordable housing crises affecting the millions of Americans who can’t afford to relocate to a second home in the South Pacific. Imagine a front-page article highlighting designs for a new public housing prototype or an app that undercuts racial bias in housing searches. These ideas could really draw attention to people who need the help.
A good design isn’t necessarily even realistic, but it does get people curious and excited about the future, and affordable housing is a very real problem that needs all the solutions it can get.