Smaller Units, Common Spaces, Affordable Land, and Housing

photo(3)New Orleans         Recently we had one of those magical moments of organizational synergy when a new member working at the Gulf Coast head start facilities where we have a contract, signed up with Local 100 and her address indicated that she lived on Texas ACORN Street.  We were excited because those streets in ACORN Glen, named after Houston ACORN, Dallas ACORN, and Texas ACORN, were a small development built over the last decade by the ACORN Housing Corporation.  What goes around comes around!

Unfortunately there are not that many of these kinds of housing developments.  We had larger developments built in south Phoenix, smaller ones in Chicago and New Orleans, and a huge mutual housing operation in New York City.  Financing and development costs were always obstacles along with available land when it came to new construction, and now with the lessons of the recession, affordable rental units might have been our future.

Another possibility might have involved some of the interesting schemes that are being developed by young people, also caught outside of the affordable market in some of the “executive” or one-percent cities.  In the USA we have become used to larger houses because of land availability in some areas, but around the world a 200 or 300 square feet living space is more common, which made me read with interest several housing experiments that are one step up from trailer parks and involve smaller spaces and sometimes shipping containers, and more focus on common areas.

A piece in the magazine, Pacific Standard, looked at converting 200 square foot shipping containers into housing using one-third of an acre in Oakland, which is about the size of 3 city lots, to house 14 such containers.  A steel building would hold two bathrooms and a common kitchen space.  The land was outrageous at $400,000, but the containers were only a couple of grand to purchase and another $10 to $15,000 to convert to small but efficient housing units.  I imagine they could even go double and triple decker on this kind of housing system, just like the big container ships do, if they wanted or needed more space over time.  To their credit the City of Oakland was working with them to get everything up to code.

Another piece I saw somewhere looked at a similar experiment of sorts for student housing on a small-house model with common gardens and common space operations.  I think that might have been on the Evergreen campus of the University of Washington.  A former carpenter who built our coffee bar extension at Fair Grinds in New Orleans’ Mid-City and now an architectural student at Yale told me about a student project he and his colleagues were doing with a famous Italian architect to see how 100,000 units of affordable housing could be added to San Francisco for real people.

We tried our hand at a lot of different housing schemes for our members, but for lower income families affordability is always going to be a concern.  Anyone would have been glad to live on an ACORN street in Houston, but the future for affordable housing may be more easily and practicably achieved with smaller private spaces and larger common areas, bringing cities in the USA closer to the reality of the rest of the world.

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Hugh Masekela – Coal Train Live

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