In February, a major corruption scandal rocked the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), leading to the arrests of 70 then-current and former NYCHA workers and contractors. It was the largest single-day bribery takedown in Justice Department history.

Despite the vast scope of the charges—NYCHA employees demanded and received cash in exchange for NYCHA “no-bid” contracts that were, in turn, often grossly overpaid—it hardly came as a surprise to New Yorkers, who would regularly see images on local television of rat-infested NYCHA apartments that time and again went without heat in winter. The enormity of the operation was matched only by the absurdity of the goings-on at the largest public housing authority in North America. A recent review of NYCHA invoices revealed—in what was probably one of the more outrageous instances—that the agency paid a “no-bid” vendor over $708 to change a light bulb.

While most people may have become numb to these pay-to-play problems at government bureaus, it’s the by-the-book costs that offend me. This issue of RECORD, focusing on multifamily buildings, features examples of workforce, supportive, and transitional housing—all presumably “affordable.” But affordable is an elastic term, and, while it may, in a sense, be “affordable” for residents to occupy these dwelling units, they certainly aren’t cheap to build—they can cost up to 25 percent more than comparable market-rate housing. The San Mateo County Navigation Center, interim housing for the formerly homeless, stands out as a less expensive model. It was constructed using a prefabricated modular system that, at $237,500 a door, cost less than half the amount conventional construction does: similar units for these types of housing—typically simple, rectangular spaces ranging between 250 and 400 square feet—can cost upward of $500,000. Could you imagine paying half a million dollars to build a box that accommodates little more than a bed, a bathroom, and a kitchenette? Why do government agencies and nonprofits pay that much?

“The list of regulatory and other issues that drive up the cost of affordable housing is endless,” says architect Larry Scarpa, cofounder of the Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute. “It’s normal for many of our projects to have up to 12 funding sources, each with their own separate and unique requirements, such as size of rooms, length of countertops, amount of storage, or clearance around beds. And one of the most costly considerations, the ‘elephant in the room,’ is the Americans with Disabilities Act—100 percent of affordable housing must be either adaptable or accessible, when only a small percentage of the population is recognized as having disabilities under definitions that align with the ADA.”

Whether a result of corruption, red tape, or something else, somewhere along the line, things went very wrong. A panel discussion last month, cosponsored by Open House New York and The Architectural League of New York, centered around the book Housing the Nation: Social Equity, Architecture, and the Future of Affordable Housing (excerpted in the February issue of RECORD), explored the evolution of this dire situation. NYCHA, for instance, started out as an “exemplar of good, solid, affordable housing for working people,” said David Burney, its chief architect from 1990 to 2004, at the event. Skid Row Housing Trust, another institution that had long stood as a celebrated model for providing shelter to formerly homeless people, imploded last year. It happened, in part, as The Los Angeles Times reported, because of the challenging financing model for the housing stock it set out to save, mainly single-room-occupancy buildings.

While it’s easy to point out the problems, it’s seemingly impossible—especially as architects—to fix them. But architects should remember that providing decent housing for the people has long been a central project of the profession. Good design that makes affordable housing attractive to its constituency and communities can provide the impetus to overcome the egregious economic and political barriers to its development.