Researchers Study Design Quality Considerations at LIHTC Developments
The Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS) and Enterprise Community Partners recently published a paper that looks at how funding and review processes shape the design of affordable housing. The research effort did not attempt to define “design excellence,” which can be a very subjective assessment. Instead, the research focused on whether and how key actors and processes assessed the design quality of affordable housing developments.
The researchers focused on the greater Boston area and how the state allocates its annual allotment of the LIHTCs. They reviewed the state’s guidelines used to allocate the state’s annual allotment of LIHTCs; interviewed local experts in the field, a group that included nonprofit and for-profit developers, architects, and several current and former public officials; and had discussions at the Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute (AHDLI), an annual event organized by Enterprise Community Partners that brings together nonprofit developers and design professionals to discuss how to improve the design of proposed affordable housing projects.
The researchers came up with four findings:
- The LIHTC process in Massachusetts generally encourages “design excellence” for elements that can be measured, such as energy efficiency or accessibility;
- The harder-to-measure “visible” or “aesthetic” design elements generally are the product of the informal and formal ways that community groups and local governments review proposed affordable housing developments;
- While funding and approval processes sometimes hamper efforts to improve projects’ design, key actors can bring design back into consideration, particularly if they can create or take advantage of well-timed processes that bring together developers and designers for design-focused discussions that take funding and other constraints into account;
- Each project’s physical, political, and financial context is unique, which makes it extremely difficult to use a regulatory process to specify what design excellence entails.
According to the researchers, the findings underscore how the complex interplay of funding, design, regulatory processes, and local politics creates both challenges to and opportunities for efforts to ensure that affordable housing projects are designed and built in ways most likely to benefit residents of those buildings as well as people in the neighborhoods that surround them. They also suggest that realizing design excellence for affordable housing projects is difficult but achievable. This is particularly true if the work plan for project development encourages and incentivizes processes that allow project designs to be challenged and pushed to a higher standard.