Testing our Way to an Affordable Future
The Housing Innovation Competition
Boston’s affordable housing needs are evident to anyone trying to find a home in this city. Whether you are looking to rent or own, you are likely facing steep prices, regardless of neighborhood. This lack of affordability, and the strain it results in for Boston’s current and hopeful residents, is the number one priority for the Mayor’s Housing Innovation Lab.
The Housing Innovation Lab was created to serve the needs of Boston’s current and future residents, by pioneering innovative housing models and systems, as well as accelerating the pace of innovation in the housing sector.
The Housing Innovation Lab (Housing iLab), created in 2015, is one of Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s major tools for tackling housing affordability issues in the city. It was created to serve the needs of Boston’s current and future residents, by pioneering innovative housing models and systems, as well as accelerating the pace of innovation in the housing sector. The Housing iLab uses many tools to achieve this mission, all of which are experimental in nature. One of those tools is the Housing Innovation Competition, and for the Housing iLab, it brings hope of identifying necessary pieces to solve Boston’s affordability challenge.
A Housing Innovation Competition is both an ideas competition and a housing production mechanism. It is intended to identify a new housing typology or option to test for feasibility and impact in Boston. Feasibility is a reflection of community, government, and private (for-profit and non-profit) interest in the idea, capacity and resources to take it on, and appetite for risk. Impact is the determination of whether or not the idea is scalable, how effectively it meets existing housing preferences in the city, and how many households it poses to serve.
A Housing Innovation Competition employs a collaborative ideation, scoping, and evaluation process. It includes: (1) relationship development and communication with the community; (2) idea generation and identification; (3) site selection; (4) scoping competition requirements with the community; (5) outreach; (6) proposal submissions; (7) a diverse jury’s evaluation of proposals; and finally, (8) the selection of a winning proposal, which will actually be built on the selected site.
Embedded at the beginning, the end and all throughout are check-ins with the community to ensure expectations are shaped in an evolving and progressive way.
The Housing iLab’s first iteration of the Housing Innovation Competition was to test Compact Living (Housing Innovation Competition (Compact Living — Garrison Trotter)). It focused on encouraging and testing creative design solutions to produce more compact units. Compact units are smaller than Boston’s currently implemented minimums — specifically designed for middle-income families and the elderly outside of the city’s downtown core.
Compact units are smaller than Boston’s currently implemented minimums — specifically designed for middle-income families and the elderly outside of the city’s downtown core.
The basis for this test was, in part, research findings from the UHU Roadshow, a previous Housing iLab project, which demonstrated interest from families across Boston in smaller living options. This interest was complex and required consideration be made to a number of elements, including, but not limited to: (1) cubic square-footage of the space to ensure sense of spaciousness; and (2) access to important familial and community infrastructure and amenities.
What resulted from the Competition, were six distinct proposals from six unique teams. Each of these ideas offered a well researched and developed approach to offering affordable, compact units for families and elderly in Garrison Trotter.
Further insights regarding these proposals are detailed here.
Beyond new ideas and new housing in Boston, the competition resulted in several critical lessons. Applying these lessons could have significant, positive impacts on the price of housing in Boston.
Lesson #1: The city needs routine outlets and incentives for Boston-specific housing ideas to be proposed and tested.
The first Housing Innovation Competition proved that there is potential to test new housing typologies in Boston. It demonstrates the value these competitions can serve: as outlets for new ideas, as tests to more fully vet project feasibilities, and as an opportunity to better meet the housing preferences of Boston residents. Undoubtedly, innovation can be unnerving at times. However, in an effort to meet Bostonians’ affordability needs, it is essential, the City and it’s community and private partners develop an appropriate appetite for risk to test new ideas.
Lesson #2: Silos of industry/expertise need to be replaced with a relationship, network based model.
Each community meeting, applicant team, and even the deciding jury was composed of a mixture of backgrounds and expertise. The community meetings included community members, city employees, and representatives from a core partner, the Boston Society of Architects. The applicant teams were composed of developers, architects, and contractors. Additionally, the jury was a multi-disciplinary composition of community members, architects, developers, city planners, and other city employees.
An effort was made to ensure communication was consistent, as were follow-ups and check-ins between all parties involved. It was essential to the progression of the competition, and the selection of a winning proposal, that all elements of the proposals were thoughtfully and deliberately considered. That is only possible when an effort is made to keep experts across industries and neighborhoods collaborating throughout the process.
Lesson #3: Innovation in housing is shaped by and with the community.
The initial Housing Innovation Competition and the winning proposal were shaped by the community. Fundamentally, it is necessary to ensure the community not only has the opportunity to say yay or nay, but also, to have voice to (1) direct how proposals should look and the needs they must meet; and (2) identify which aspects of the proposals best meet those expectations. This Competition would not have been possible without a relationship and collaboration with the Garrison Trotter Neighborhood Association and residents of the neighborhood. The process and final product were improved because they included deep consideration from community members. Innovative housing is not created for communities. Rather, it is created with them.
Moving forward, Housing Innovation Competitions will continue to be a helpful tool for the Housing iLab. They will be used to test new ideas, determine feasibility and impact, and potentially incentivize scaling to meet demand. More importantly, Housing Innovation Competitions will be used to forward one of Boston’s major priorities: creating housing that is affordable. Innovative ideas, and the test of them, is a necessary piece to creating new ways to live affordably in this city.
What’s Next for the Housing Innovation Lab
- Creating a Compact Policy — Building off what we learned about resident interest and development feasibility (through this competition) we are developing a Compact Policy for the City of Boston that would allow for the creation of well designed, flexible, compact living spaces that provide more affordable living.
- Housing Innovation Competition 2.0 — The Competition has proven to be a successful tool for identifying necessary pieces to solve Boston’s affordability challenge. After gathering input from judges, development teams and city staff about the process, we are working to create an even better competition to tackle a new development challenge.
- Exploring New Pilot Ideas — In addition, we are exploring other alternative living models and systems, such as Limited Equity Coops and Accessory Dwelling Units. Our aim is that these explorations lead to new pilot projects in the coming year.