What we learned from the UHU Roadshow

A prototype engagement tour to learn how Boston feels about smaller living

The Urban Housing Unit (UHU) Roadshow was the latest, large scale engagement effort from the Mayor’s Housing Innovation Lab. It was brought in partnership with the Boston Society of Architects/AIA, the BSA Foundation, Livelight, and WHAT’S IN.

For those of you who haven’t had a chance to check out the UHU, it is a 385 square-foot, modular, fully furnished, one bedroom, compact apartment, interactive exhibit… on wheels. And it went all over the city.

UHU exhibit in East Boston

Starting at City Hall Plaza on August 5, 2016, the UHU Roadshow moved from downtown to Roslindale, Mattapan, Dorchester, Roxbury, and East Boston. The UHU would stay at a single site in the neighborhood for approximately two weeks; typically there were 4 events at each location. Events, locations, and partnerships were built out of communication with the neighborhoods and, as much as possible, the events were designed around community input. In total, the Roadshow consisted of 24 events. Over 2000 Boston residents came to check out the UHU Roadshow and chat with members of the Housing iLab, the BSA, LiveLight, and WHAT’S IN. The neighborhood portion just finished up this past Friday, November 5, but if you’d still like to visit, the UHU is now located at the BSA space on Atlantic Wharf and will be there until December 9, 2016.

Ultimately, the entire purpose of the UHU Roadshow was to hear community voices and learn how the city’s residents feel about smaller living. Specifically, the Housing iLab intended the Roadshow to be a space that provided context, both for what smaller spaces might offer, in terms of livability and comfort, as well as in affordability. Evidence suggests smaller, modular produced units can have substantial cost savings, which could translate into savings for middle income renters/buyers.

Residents providing feedback in Mattapan

The Housing iLab partnered with WHAT’S IN, a research team focused on finding affordable living solutions through research, design and policy change, to create a collection process for the feedback heard from residents. This was to ensure that all of the comments, questions, and concerns raised by community members would not be lost after the roadshow, but instead could be used to inform future decisions by the city.

The teams created a number of large scale visual boards with note pads to comment, which asked 2 major questions:

1) Who do you think would want to live in a space like this; and

2) What kinds of amenities, services, and/or infrastructure would need to exist around a unit of this size to make it livable?

These boards, as well as note taking during conversations, proved to be a fantastic success. The Housing iLab collected hundreds of comment cards with relevant and helpful feedback.

Residents touring the UHU

With so much feedback from the past three months, there is a great opportunity to begin pulling out the insights and the major takeaways. The first, and potentially most important, takeaway is this:

Compact living stands as a great potential tool for addressing issues of affordability. Furthermore, it can increase the degree of housing freedom an interested household and developer has to operate with. However, compact living is not necessarily right for everyone and even folks who are encouraged by the smaller space arrangement’s potential have concerns. If the UHU Roadshow taught us nothing else, it is any scaling up production of compact unit across Boston’s diverse neighborhoods requires thoughtfulness and awareness of our community members’ questions, ambitions, and concerns.

With that in mind, it is worthwhile to dive deeper into the sentiment and feedback collected during the Roadshow. Specifically, it is helpful to consider the personas of all the visitors. Each visitor is truly unique, but in an effort to pull insights, we have grouped them into 4 different personas: “Nope,” “Uncertain,” “Hesitantly Optimistic,” and “Enthusiastic.” We also have attributed a percentage to the persona, anecdotally based on our experience with the visitors. To be certain, these percentages do not necessarily depict the visitors with complete accuracy, nor do they speak for exactly how the broader population of Boston feels. However, these personas, and their relative percentages, do help us begin to have a sense of how Boston residents think about compact units.

Nope: Approximately 2–3 percent of all visitors to the UHU Roadshow suggested compact living is not suitable for anyone — not for themselves and not for anyone they knew. This person generally cited concerns with the size as the primary issue, but also raised concerns regarding stigma of living in a small unit like this.

Uncertain: Approximately 7–15 percent of the visitors were uncertain about the value of compact living. This type of visitor was not sure compact living was right for them; while they could imagine somebody in Boston might be interested in this size, this visitor was unsure there was a sizable enough population to warrant scaling up production. They also had questions about affordability, impact on the neighborhood, and feasibility. Typically, they were not optimistic about the potential for each of these issues.

Hesitantly Optimistic: Approximately 50–60 percent of the visitors demonstrated what we’re calling a “hesitant optimism” about the impact compact living could have on Boston’s housing market. They themselves felt like they could live in a compact space, or that someone they know would want to. Sometimes, this type of visitor would even call that person up and have them come right over to check out the UHU! This visitor also had questions about affordability, neighborhood impact, and feasibility, but felt more confident compact living will make a positive impact on addressing Boston’s housing needs.

Enthusiastic: Approximately 20–30 percent of all visitors were enthusiastic about the impact compact living can have to address housing needs in Boston. These were folks that offered to buy or rent the space right there and then. In fact, this type of visitor tended to be curious as to why the city had not already taken action to institute a scale up of this type of housing and they often asked when applications for similar units would be available.

UHU at Wood Island Station in East Boston

The UHU Roadshow suggests the vast majority of visitors, and as an inference, Bostonians, are either hesitantly optimistic or enthusiastic about further development of compact units for the purpose of matching middle income household needs.That said, our “nope,” “uncertain,” and “hesitantly optimistic,” personas suggest there are still important questions in need of answering and a nuanced and thoughtful approach necessary for execution. The UHU stands as a reminder that we must meet the needs of the city with a mindfulness toward the wants and needs of our community members. Compact living won’t be for everyone, but there definitely seems to be a market in Boston and an optimism that it can play a part in addressing the city’s middle income housing affordability needs.

The UHU Roadshow does not exist in isolation. As part of the Housing iLab’s exploration and experimentation in the compact living space, the Lab has partnered with the Garrison Trotter Neighborhood Association, the Department of Neighborhood Development, and the Boston Society of Architects/AIA, the BSA Foundation, to release an RFP for a Housing Innovation Competition. This competition is an effort to test the feasibility for developers to build well-designed, compact, affordable units on five city owned parcels in Roxbury. The RFP is available at http://dnd.cityofboston.gov/#page/rfps.

Proposals for the Housing Innovation Competition are due Monday, December 19, 2016. DND, BPDA, BSA/AIA, and the Mayor’s Housing Innovation Lab will host an informational event for interested parties on Thursday, November 10, 2016 from 3:30–5:30 PM, at the Boston Society of Architects Space — 290 Congress St #200, Boston, MA 02210, USA.

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