Welcome to the 2018 edition of Record Houses, a perennial favorite among readers. Custom houses are the most personal forms of architecture, obviously, reflecting an intimate collaboration between architect and client (and occasional tension between artistic expression and the desires of the person writing the checks). This year’s winning houses all have powerful stories to tell, from the discovery of the perfect site to unexpected challenges of construction to the transformation of design ideas into habitable space.
A magical setting plays a lead role in the tale of High Horse Ranch in the mountains of northern California, where modules constructed off-site were craned in to minimize disturbing the land and the trees. Meanwhile, a house in Tokyo turns its back to its urban street to create its own scenario as a temple-like enclave in a garden. The designs of other houses are strongly driven by narrative concepts: a weekend place outside São Paulo, Brazil, and a home in Toulouse, France, are designed with a sequence of spaces—compressed and expansive—that create an experience that is almost cinematic.
But these houses—largely second homes—are a rare form of residential construction. What if architects who are using their creativity to design houses for the well-off turned their skills and ingenuity to housing for those with no guarantee of a roof over their heads?
Two years ago in this column, I wrote about Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond, a social scientist who followed eight poor families as they cycled in and out of substandard rentals in Milwaukee over the course of a year. An extraordinary book, both in its clear-eyed reporting and its beautiful writing, it went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and was on the 2017 favorite-book lists of Bill Gates and former president Obama. Now Desmond has expanded his research, mining data from court proceedings through his Eviction Lab at Princeton University, to give a detailed national portrait of an extremely troubling problem: nearly 900,000 cases of court-ordered evictions in 2016 alone, touching 2.3 million people. The research forms the basis of a new exhibition at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., on view until May 2019.
Evictions are just one part of a growing housing crisis that deserves far more attention than it is getting. Just as the Evicted exhibition opened last month, a report was released stating that the U.S. fell short of housing demand from 2000 to 2015 by 7.3 million units. And the homeless population is rising once again. In places where the market is especially tight—such as California—rents have soared to the stratosphere. And rents have risen much faster than wages—twice as fast in New York, for example, but even too fast in places like New Hampshire. Many low-income families are spending far more of their paychecks on housing than the HUD recommendation of 30 percent. According to a study by Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, nearly half of renter households—and there are 43 million U.S. residents who rent—are “cost burdened.”
It’s not a problem about people not working—the jobless rate is at a low 4.1 percent—it’s about a market economy that’s not working.
The solution? Provide housing vouchers for all those in the lowest income brackets, as Desmond recommends, and start building more affordable housing now—much more. Last fall, the state of California passed several bills to begin to address its housing shortfall, including new fees on certain real-estate transactions and approval to put a $4 billion bond issue on the ballot in November, both to raise funds for affordable housing.
Shouldn’t architectural quality be part of the equation as states and municipalities grapple with how to create an abundance of affordable and low-income housing? Europe has long surpassed the U.S. in residential design of housing at varying scales and price points, and more architects here should explore the potential of multifamily housing—bringing the same inventive approach as they do to the best single-family dwellings.