Thursday, October 24, 2013

Mini golf and Brownfields

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Container Homes for All?

Shipping containers are one of of the most ubiquitous objects in the world. We see them everyday on the backs of tractor trailers on the highway, on trains cruising through town, at commercial construction sites and now in your neighborhood. I've been interested in the use of shipping containers for housing over the past several years. There’s plenty of news about them each month, with hotels and coffee shops popping up around the world, and using them for affordable housing is the new re-use that’s getting lots of news.

Last year, Brighton Housing Trust has been worked with developer QED to raise funding for an ambitious program that would recycle containers into transitional housing for persons who are homeless in the UK cities of Brighton and Hove. The key to the programs likely success is that the containers were already retrofitted by Tempo Housing, an Amsterdam housing program, that failed to convert the entire project into a viable housing project.

Although a single 40 foot long shipping container would only provide about 320 square feet of space, this is comparable to many SRO and converted hotel/motel projects. Now this might sound cramped by most US standards of living, but it’s also the size of several of the IKEA mini rooms that I see in their catalogs. The point is, that for temporary housing this might be a great fix, and the UK is not the only place looking into these types of solutions.

Container Home by Container Home Solutions India
On a recent work trip through the Eagle Ford Shale area of Texas, where the oil and gas business is booming, I found examples of recycled shipping containers being used as housing. These are not just ideas that are permeating the first world.

A recent post on Inhabitat revealed the use of containers for housing in India. The home not only used recycled containers, but beer cans to construct a 900 sq/ft home. Not only did the designers/builders  Kameshwar Rao and Neeraj Kumar build a home for themselves, but spawned a company, Container Solutions India, that is focused on building more affordable creative housing using containers. And, the idea of recycling containers is not limited to just housing.

In Brooklyn, NY, Mexico City and elsewhere recycling shipping containers into commercial space that can be creative and impactful on the urban environment. The Dekalb Market in Brooklyn was one the earliest temporary uses for commercial space that provided an relatively low-cost path for a vacant lot to be transformed, and to test the viability of commercial space in one corner of the city. Mexico’s Container City is another example of not only testing commercial spaces, but designing habitats that might not otherwise be funded through traditional commercial banking or finance channels.

The flexibility and speed with which these Lego blocks of the building world can be formed into new private and public spaces bodes well for their future. I’ll just have to keep my eye out for the latest from around the web.

Best aye,


Here are some other great stories and links.

Monday, August 26, 2013

How do we improve community engagement in affordable housing?

The process of community engagement as I have experienced it since the beginning of my career has always seemed to have more promise than follow through.  Yes we hold public hearings on every federally and state funded project so that neighbors, stakeholders and advocates can come out to speak their minds. We accept emails and phone calls with complaints, save them and respond in the most “even and fair” manner that we think we’re allowed to. We even hold stakeholders meetings and create commissions and advisory committees so that “representatives” of different populations and groups can tell anecdotal stories about their needs and wants.

But do we really ever listen? Do we create an atmosphere where the public, advocates and developers can talk about their ideas and differences in an open manner? Do we even care?

I’ll start by saying that many of us in community development really do care. We are in this business not because of lush salaries or the hope of obtaining public adoration (at least I don’t think we are). I think that most of us really do want to change the way things are done. To create opportunities for the public, neighborhors, stakeholders and advocates to share their ideas and effect change. Unfortunately, I think that many of the systems for generating discussion and engagement are fatally flawed.

The two largest public finance programs for affordable housing are driven by federal regulations that ensure a public hearing is held for every housing tax credit and tax exempt bond project proposed. The agencies that manage these programs schedule hearings (at least the really good ones) near their development site and on days and times that neighbors can come by and share their ideas. The public can air any grievances they have over the proposed projects and impacts to their community, ask questions or just state that they don’t really know what’s going on and need some type of information.

In nearly every public hearing that I have been involved in the staff person in attendance reads into the public record a set speech that they may not waiver from. They ask anyone who wants to speak to come forward, provide their comments and then sit down. There is no dialogue. The staff person has been informed that they may not provide a response to any questions or comments on anything said. And so they sit calmly (smile or not) and “listen” to the public air their ideas.

But is this really all that the public gets or deserves? It often feels to me that we are short changing the public’s role in the process and providing only a placative avenue for them to speak, without much opportunity to really effect change. Does this really have to be the case? I don’t think so.

A recent article at Next American City by Neeraj Mehta touches on many of these same concerns and issues I’ve pointed out above. Mr. Mehta also goes on to provide some meaningful responses to the “how can we make things better” question. Specifically, he notes three steps or considerations that would at least begin to move us in the right direction.

  • Acknowledge our interdependence and need for increased diversity.
  • Be honest with the complexity.
  • Be comfortable with uncertainty and controversy.

Within his analysis he notes that every project is different and that each will possibly need a unique process or approach to gain meaningful input from stakeholders and decision makers. I recommend that you read the article in full, if you care at all about this topic, and look into Mr. Mehta’s other works.

The better news is that public engagement is something that a lot of people have been thinking, writing and teaching about for decades. It may not all be focused on housing or community development, but there is one really great resource out there with a vast collection of resources. The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD) not only produces ongoing research about better avenues for community engagement, but has several easy to use tools for people like me, to help improve procedures and use new strategies that might be better suited to the kinds of inputs and feedback that I need and our communities deserve.

I’ll be starting a process over the next few months to research better strategies and I’ll provide updates on anything I try out in my programs. I hope some of you will share your thoughts and ideas, too.



Friday, May 10, 2013

Partnerships - Complementary Skills

Developing successful partnerships, I believe, is the key to good community development. But the use of the term “public-private partnership” is often overused and misused. For years I followed the path that most state and federal agency employees do and mislabeled the projects that I funded as partnerships. But I realize now that this couldn't be farther from the truth.

In my opinion, and the opinion of others, partnerships require both parties to work in consort towards a common goal. Partners use each others skills in order to achieve their goals in a way that doesn’t burden one partner more than the other. In the process of financing affordable housing, or any community development project, there is typically a clear lack of “partnership” taking place.

I don’t want to minimize the role that government or private funders have in making affordable housing possible. But, I don’t see that the process of setting up rules and regulations, application and award procedures, then monitoring the successful building of housing by awardees as a partnership.  I certainly don’t feel that I’m in a partnership with the plumber that I select to fix the leaking pipe under my house.  I don’t feel that I’m in a partnership with the police officer that enforces speed limits in my neighborhood, though I’m happy he does. The point is that paying someone to do something, like build affordable housing, does not mean that you’re in a partnership with them.

To me, partnership means that you “do work” together and using your complementary skills to increase the likelihood of success. In housing that means I have to put some effort into the process and ensure that I fulfill the roles and responsibilities that I take on in order to make the project work. In our land banking program we work hard to screen properties and ensure that we’re not getting a project site that won’t work for my local partner. We use our skills in acquisition, property review, financing and sometimes fundraising to ensure that our partners can focus on their responsibilities.

While some might say that we also take on the role of monitoring and ensuring compliance like a state agency, I argue that the difference in a partnership is that both parties have agreed to ensure a common goal and affirmed this through our contracts. I do take on the role of reporting to our funders and financiers that we are being successful. I need the help of my partner to provide some information, but I collect, process and report that information back to our funders. Again, this is part of the partnership process, a process that I hope allows our partners to focus on building communities, which they are great at.

When it all comes together we get housing done. We allow our partners to focus on their strengths in building quality homes, helping families become homeowners and revitalizing neighborhoods. We share a common goal, we share responsibilities and we achieve more through good partnerships.