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Competition aims to bring starter homes to working-class families
by Ariel Parrella-Aureli

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As gentrification seeps into various Chicago communities, affordable housing sits on the opposite side of the table, especially in the design and architectural communities. The American Institute of Architects' ( AIA ) Chicago chapter is launching an affordable housing competition for architects to submit designs to create affordable starter homes to help fight rising rent costs, displacement in gentrifying areas and use undervalued property.

The three-part competition, called Disruptive Design, is in partnership with the Chicago Housing Policy Task Force, a group of organizations invested in creating affordable housing that include Neighborhood Housing Services ( NHS ), LISC Chicago, AIA Chicago, Northern Trust and Chicago Neighborhood Initiative Group. It invites architects from anywhere in the world to submit ideas and designs for building affordable starter homes at a low price—under $150 per square foot. The total sales price for each home is not to exceed $250,000 and each submission needs to meet rigorous accessibility, environmental sustainability and social sustainability goals. The task force is working with Ald. Walter Burnett ( 27th Ward ) and Ald. Pat Dowell ( 3rd Ward ) to produce two affordable, replicable and dynamic housing prototypes on city-owned vacant lots in their wards. The competition opens Nov. 15 for a general questions period and Phase I, a written phase, opens Dec. 1—Jan. 31, 2019.

AIA Chicago Executive Vice President Zurich Esposito said the competition was created to give affordable housing units with innovative design to all kinds of households. Esposito, who is part of the first LGBTQ networking group at AIA Chicago, said the design results of the competition should be open to nontraditional families and be accessible by diverse communities.

"[We want] to be sure all kinds of households have access to well-designed housing," Esposito said. "We want these new communities to be exceptional and not just run-of-the-mill and that is why we are doing the competition."

Sarah Brune, manager of innovation and public policy at NHS, echoed the inclusivity aspect, saying anyone in the low-income bracket can benefit from these affordable starter homes, regardless of race or gender. NHS is one of the leaders of the project and works with various communities in Chicago to provide affordable housing options.

"We want to address the rising cost of construction in Chicago and around the country," Brune said of the competition. "We also want to make sure that young families, working families or first-time homebuyers are able to find starter homes in Chicago."

LISC Chicago also supports homeownership and has several programs in place that work with local organizations to give low-income residents access to home investment. Jack Swenson, Housing and Neighborhood Development officer with LISC Chicago, said LISC's goal with this design competition is to generate wealth creation for homebuyers and surrounding businesses.

"That wealth creation happens through access to affordable housing that allows neighborhood residents to become homeowners and remain homeowners in their neighborhoods," Swenson said. "But also wealth creation happens as we begin to think about homes as more flexible spaces where business developments can occur."

Connecting these two ideas is at the crux of the competition, Swenson said, and exploring them through design is an exciting approach that speaks to the housing needs of Chicagoans in underserved communities.

"We are trying to retain wealth in emerging neighborhoods across the city," he said.

The competition is trying to do what the city has not been able to. In 2016, the demand for affordable housing outstripped supply by nearly 120,000 units—and the gap is growing. That is according to a 2018 study by the Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul University, which looked at how rental supply and demand is affecting housing access.

The city government has not done enough to address the affordable housing issue, said Lori Lightfoot, a mayoral candidate and proponent of affordable housing, education, community investment and public safety. If elected, she would be Chicago's first openly lesbian Black mayor.

Lightfoot said this issue brings housing stress to all demographics, including members of the LGBTQ and particularly, LGBTQ homeless youth.

"There's a significant number of homeless youth that are members of the LGBTQ community so this issue cuts across a lot of demographics and ethnicities in the city," Lightfoot said.

Her plan to create more affordable housing for low-income residents and those experiencing homelessness starts with having city agency to prioritize renovation and preservation of homes by lowering costs for community-based developers and creating deals that benefit local organizations with better engagement.

"The city has to be proactive and much more of a partner in creating options that are affordable, particularly for families," she said.

Lightfoot's second goal is to limit aldermanic prerogative, which is the amount of control alderman have on stopping or limiting real estate developments in their wards. She said while alderman do their job well and have a role to play in shaping policy and projects, they cannot have unchecked veto power as they do now. Limiting this would grant access to more affordable housing options and break down segregation barriers, she added.

Changing the Affordable Requirements Ordinance ( ARO ) in areas with 10 percent or less affordable housing options is her third step, one that needs to hold developers responsible to expand more affordability in projects or close proximity to them.

"Right now, what's happening is developers are opting out and paying an 'in lieu of' fee but that's not getting affordable housing units built," she said. This can be seen with developments in Logan Square and Humboldt Park. "There is a huge deficit in the amount of affordable housing units that the city itself has projected and we are way behind those projections."

She called affordable housing "an issue of our time" and said there needs to be more creative, transparent activism—particularly from the City of Chicago—on it to stop the exodus of displacement. Groups like the Chicago Housing Policy Task Force are shaping the housing market and the architecture competition brings together design, policy and social justice to address a big Chicago issue.

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