In April, 2020, in the annual Record Houses issue, this column discussed the challenges of home—the physical and psychological space where so many of us were in lockdown as the pandemic raged. It was at home that we were learning to isolate, to work and study remotely, to expand our use of digital tools, and to replace a sense of real community with a virtual one.
Now, 12 months later, we are beginning to exhale, with vaccine rollouts and businesses, schools, and other institutions starting to reopen—though in many places, as tentatively as the green shoots poking up in gardens and parks.
And, once again this year, we bring you Record Houses, a half dozen innovative responses to the idea of home, scattered around the world from Japan to Mexico, from Peru to New Zealand, and across America, from the Oregon coast to the East End of Long Island. Each of the architects who designed these houses, from the modest to the spectacular, thoughtfully considered the site, whether on a tight urban plot or along a rugged stretch of coastline exposed to the weather. And each took the opportunity to play not only with form but experiment with materials, from wood and weathering steel to thatch and cork.
But it is impossible to look at these beautiful explorations of design and not think of the other end of the spectrum in the experience of home—for those who are struggling to hang on to where they live, and those who have lost housing altogether. This is especially true with Covid: for millions of Americans, jobs have dried up and savings are gone. The federal moratorium on evictions is set to expire (governors have extended it in some states), though the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill includes $21.55 billion for emergency rental assistance and $5 billion in emergency-housing vouchers. Preventing evictions is a first priority for the new HUD secretary, former Ohio Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, as is tackling the affordable-housing crisis, ensuring fair housing practices, and grappling with homelessness.
According to HUD’s annual one-night count, more than half a million people in the U.S. are homeless right now, and one-third are families with children (many experts believe the number is higher, neglecting to include those doubled up with relatives, for example). A disproportionate 40 percent are African-American. The relief bill does allocate $5 billion for homelessness, to help local governments on the front lines of this ongoing emergency—which should be a contradiction in terms but is not. Encampments of tents sprawl across vacant lots and parks, and under highway overpasses. Temporary shelter systems are inadequate or broken, with a revolving door of people in and out of homelessness, many of whose situations are complicated by mental health issues and substance dependency.
This lack of affordable or low-cost housing has been exacerbated, we know, by soaring property values in major metropolitan areas. There are small-scale solutions on offer, such as the Accessory Dwelling Units, or secondary residences, now permitted throughout California—a program that the City of Los Angeles has promoted by commissioning highly imaginative designs for such tiny houses from a roster of young architects. And the 2021 Pritzker Prize winners, the French architectural duo Lacaton & Vassal, should be a source of inspiration for working in this arena, with their ingenious transformations of existing buildings for social housing; the jury cited them for creating “architecture as strong in its forms as in its convictions”.
But we need much bigger, more sweeping ideas to upend the patchwork of programs that are now failing us. One intriguing concept comes from the Urban Democracy Lab at New York University, where professor Gianpaolo Baiocchi and H. Jacob Carlson, a post-doc researcher, have proposed a new federal agency, the Social Housing Development Authority, which would buy, at market value, distressed rental properties—often owned by small landlords—rehab them and turn them over to community housing nonprofits or tenant co-ops to rent and operate. Why is this such a fantastic idea? Because such properties are increasingly snapped up by private equity and corporate interests, which are far more likely to evict poor tenants than rehab the properties for them. Such an initiative could help create many more desperately needed low-rent houses and apartments.
For the chronically homeless, the answer also is to build, or rebuild, offering those in need not temporary shelter but permanent supportive housing. The homeless problem, unsolved by generations of well-intentioned bureaucrats, demands a strong, creative, system-wide approach. Expensive? Not compared to what we have. Experts agree it costs no more (and possibly less) to house the homeless than to pay for shelters, policing of nonviolent infractions on the street, and frequent emergency room visits (another symptom of homelessness). Formerly homeless people who are extended the dignity and basic right to live in a decent, safe, stable place are healthier and have better outcomes.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise, because in the end, everyone needs a place to call home.