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Rebuilding the Supply of Affordable Housing

In Massachusetts, single-family home prices are rising faster than any other state, with median home sale prices continuing an upward trend.[1]The problems of availability and affordability will continue to plague the future Boston housing market, unless innovative action is taken. In June 2018, the Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism closed out its two-year biennial focused on affordable housing with the conference, Rebuilding the Supply of Affordable Housing, co-hosted with Fannie Mae. Keynote speaker, and MIT DUSP alum Chrystal Kornegay, executive director of MassHousing opened the event, framing the challenges facing Massachusetts, including access to credit, rising building costs, zoning and land availability. “We have to do something around innovations in design and construction in Massachusetts in particular, as we are slow behind the curve,” Kornegay told participants, setting up a half-day discussion on many of those advancements.

The first panel, What’s Behind the Housing Supply Crisis explored the causes of the housing supply crisis in the Boston area. Bill Wheaton (MIT) provided an overview of the two major concerns: housing affordability, recognized by available land, construction costs and impediments, and affordable housing – a social policy question.  On the problem of supply, Jon Lawless (Fannie Mae) noted that nationally, the wrong housing types continue to be built – far too many units for families and not enough for single adults. Non-profits continue to struggle to prop up housing programs through subsidies. Soni Gupta (The Boston Foundation) reported that to meet medium and short-term needs, new developments will need to continue adding affordable units. In order to spur a natural trickle-down of housing stock, a fair amount of production will need to get underway in the Boston area.

Many Bostonians are not only priced out of the market, but are also unable to access the financial support systems that could assist with homeownership. Panelists on Innovation’s Role in Housing Affordability explored the new technologies that could help change this. Erin Collard (Blend) suggested that machine learning and artificial intelligence would provide greater accessibility to finance and encourage financial inclusion. Thomas Hardjono (MIT) outlined further opportunities through blockchain – as access to digital identities are created, we may provide potential homebuyers with additional methods of identification, as well as also learning more about them through their digital networks. Thomas Curry (Nutter) cautioned that use of these new technologies will require corporate vigilance to protect identities and personal data, in tandem with regulatory compliance and operational risk assessment. Participants were introduced to MIT-connected startups looking to stem the affordability challenges in the Boston area. Nesterly presented their new tech-based platform out of SA+P’s design accelerator program, designX, that couples homeowners with extra bedrooms and potential tenants.

To combat the challenges of rising building costs, innovation in housing construction is also essential. In Housing Tomorrow’s Families, Larry Sass (MIT) presented his work on 3D puzzling: automating the production of housing materials for specific typologies to be assembled on site.  Bob Simpson (Fannie Mae) also explained the increased use of modular housing, but that homeowners would need to be educated on maintenance, resale, and financing options.  The panel also discussed gaps that keep these technologies from being successfully implemented in Boston and beyond. Housing-type decision-making is not community driven, noted Katie Swenson (Enterprise Community Partners) and solving the design problem is essential to adoption. Finally, as an example of one of these technology-driven design systems, Ensamble Studio’s Debora Mesa Molina (MIT) highlighted their prefabricated housing concept in Brookline, MA as a method of incorporating design and construction logic to control for building costs and time.

Jon Lawless (Fannie Mae) pointed to the need for more cross-disciplinary conversations: “at a higher level, there are ways we can address this issue, but it will require everyone to turn their keys at once.” Through collaboration and innovation, we can make housing safer, more accessible, and more affordable. Creating sustainable solutions will greatly impact the housing communities of tomorrow, but will also require collaborative thinking across sectors to build the 185,000 new units promised to Eastern Massachusetts by 2030.

Re-watch the event below: