How to prevent your ‘affordable’ community from becoming ‘cheap’

Article By:

Principal | Urban Designer

A community is more than a certain number of people living together in close proximity. Instead, it’s a living organism with a life of its own.

That’s why, when a community is being shaped out, it is essential to pay attention to all aspects of the process. And, as can be easily understood, affordable housing is one of the prime requirements of the community building system.

However, traditionally it has been observed that homeowners in the middle and higher-income groups tend to look down upon their affordable housing counterparts. Without much foresight or thoughtfulness, they are often classified as being ‘cheap.’

Today, I’m going to discuss why affordable housing is looked down upon, and what steps can be taken to ensure it doesn’t turn out cheap. But before all that, I’ll take a step back and help you understand what the concept of affordable housing is all about.

Let’s take a closer look.

What does affordable housing mean?

While government authorities and academia may come up with multiple definitions, I prefer to go for a simple one. Affordable housing refers to living options that can be afforded by all sections of the population, regardless of their income levels.

This includes low-cost housing schemes, affordable renting options and even compact homes. The last category refers mostly to trailers and RVs, making up the permanent residence of a sizable portion of the population.

As a general rule, affordable housing options are constructed with low-cost materials and don’t have many architectural features except the fundamental necessities. This, of course, is a generalization that is marked by exceptions.

Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that in the community perception, trailer homes and similar accommodations hold a lower place of pride. Apart from the fact that these are less durable than most regular housing options, there are other negative connotations attached to them.

Why we don't like trailer parks

If there’s one irrefutable fact that must be accepted, the number of affordable residence options such as trailer parks is decreasing across the country. While this might be seen as an increase in the number of homes owned, a closer look reveals a different picture.

In any community, there remains a desire to be seen as a cohesive unit. Everyone wants to be a part of the flock; yet, wherever a trailer rumbles into the neighborhood, foreheads furrow and eyebrows are raised.

These often ramshackle shelters are seen as visible eyesores in the community. It’s not a house, nor is it a vehicle, but an abomination in between. And if a trailer park crops up in your neighborhood, things can go wrong on so many levels.

Plus, there’s the aspect of land use, which is another side of this many-faced coin. Trailer parks often require a considerable amount of maintenance and rent collection might not be sufficient to justify the costs.

This often leads the landowners to evict trailers from their properties and hand it over to builders for construction. The plot is then used to put up a commercial or high-end residential property, and the trailer population is left to fend for itself.

That’s the general perception of such residential options. They are never really seen in a forgiving light. Plus, there’s the question of the dwellers of such affordable houses, which is a whole new story altogether.

A stigmatized population

Residents of affordable housing options such as trailers mostly belong to the lower-income groups. Granted, some more affluent residents choose to live in affordable housing schemes, but that number is meagre indeed.

As a result, the tenants of such residences are often perceived as disturbing elements, out of sync with the rest of the society. They are expected to have lower credit scores, harbor behavioral and financial problems, and even resort to substance abuse.

Naturally, residents of peaceful communities don’t want such ‘cheap’ residential options to be a part of their lives. The ordinary people prefer to keep them at arm’s length from their neighborhood, and in a way, I cannot blame them.

After all, in the modern context, affordable is a synonym for cheap; no one wants to go that way.

Why affordable doesn't necessarily mean cheap

From my experience as an urban designer, I’ve come to believe rather the opposite. The people who belong to affordable homes can be a valuable part of the community and contribute to their well-being. They can be kind, generous, and helpful.

Not only the people living in affordable homes but the homes themselves can be valuable. Just because affordable homes are low cost doesn’t mean they must be constructed to bear that stamp.

Whether they are trailers, RVs, or low-cost dwellings, we need to construct these homes, keeping the aesthetics of the neighborhood in mind. By following a consistent construction model, urban planners can skillfully integrate such homes with existing residences.

In the US, manufactured housing (commonly replacing the words “trailer park”) is built to the Manufactured Home Construction and Safety Standards (HUD Code) and constructed in the controlled environment of a manufacturing plant. It is no longer about mobility but about affordability, looking pretty much like your typical ranch in a safe and amenitized community.

On the one hand, we see a manufactured housing community like Saddle Brook Farms in Grayslake, Illinois, that looks like an upscale subdivision. On the other hand, affordability is already an inherent part of creating a complete community, which includes a range of housing options and mixed-use developments. This fulflils most municipality’s development goals of integrating different income-groups/affordability status within a community, as well as create an attractive and thriving community, like Hendrick Farm in Ottawa, Ontario, and our very own design for Fox Run in Boyne City, Michigan.

In fact, communities across North America have already taken steps in this direction. In the US, there are several innovative, affordable housing models such as the LEED-certified mixed-income multifamily rental development of Paso Verde, Philadelphia. Other good examples include the adaptive reuse of the former St. Anthony Hospital near Sloan’s Lake in Denver and the upscale, green affordable development of The Rose in Minneapolis.

Canada, too, is not far behind and has already implemented policies such as the Affordable Housing Innovation Fund, and Affordable Rental Housing Program. Such policies can help further the cause of affordable residential properties, like the upcoming City of Toronto’s 250 modular housing units with the help of $18.75 million from the Affordable Housing Innovation Fund. This project was fast-tracked because of the need for safe and stable housing to ease homelessness.

Also, affordable housing should be designed in an eco-friendly and safe manner and be provided with low-maintenance landscaping. This has the potential to make the community surroundings more appealing to residents as well as investors.

In short, affordable housing schemes should be undertaken with a view of inclusion and not separation. By integrating this demographic with the rest of the community, urban planners can enrich the locality’s appeal to all.

Our design approach

At Nadi Group, we have a long-standing track record of clients, including rural municipality officers/planning commission, crown corporations and property developers, who are involved in the decision making planning process. Our team understands the need for attractive, affordable housing (such as manufactured housing communities) in neighborhoods and have consistently provided high-value to the services we bring to our clients and home builders. Moreover, we help residents protect the property values of their homes.

Our first step typically entails a background research and site analysis of the location, traffic report and soil studies. The findings of these studies inform us to us to adopt a design approach that is sensitive to the site’s unique topography, existing tree lines, groundwater table, surface drainage and the adjacent neighborhoods.

This approach also guides us in the preparation of a sketch plan depicting street and lot layouts, and the location of the clubhouse, detention pond and other amenities. One critical aspect to the design is the carefully planned allotment of the homes in terms of optimization of the yield, reinforcement of public street frontage, sensitive alignment to neighbors and overall harmony with the site’s characteristics.

Based on our successes in past zoning operations, we understand how to impress the viewer with the ultimate quality of the community and the need for attainable housing within the municipality areas.

In conclusion

Affordable residential options need not necessarily be classified as ‘low-grade’ or ‘cheap.’ Through thoughtful planning and careful execution, they can be made integral parts of the community.

In today’s time of growing economic and social disparity, the very act of welcoming such tenants into the neighborhood can be a much-needed change indeed. Not only will this serve to improve the societal balance, but it will also create an atmosphere of co-operative living for all.

At the end of the day, a community is not about ‘me’ and ‘I,’ but ‘We,’ and cost really shouldn’t be a part of this equation, should it?

3150 Livernois Road,
Unit 136
Troy, Michigan
Toll: 844-669-6234

289 Garry Street,
Unit 300
Winnipeg, Manitoba
R3C 1H9
Toll: 844-669-6234

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