How to Reimagine Public Housing in Newark and New Jersey

Newark remains New Jersey’s biggest city, but the affordability of housing is becoming an increasingly important issue for many of Newark’s residents. Public housing has a key role to play, but under current methodology building more public housing may only be making the problem of affordability worse.

So, what’s the solution? Are there successful public housing projects that we could copy to build better communities and improve existing neighborhoods?

The housing market in Newark is unaffordable for most working families

According to U.S. Bureau Census numbers released in July, Newark’s population increased by 12% during the last decade to 311,549 residents. This continual growth is causing friction in the housing market. There’s a huge gap in housing stock, with more than 15,000 units needed to provide housing for low-income families, according to a study conducted by The Rutgers Law School Center on Law, Inequality, and Metropolitan Equity.

Half of Newark’s residents earn less than $30k per year, meaning they require homes that rent for around $750 per month. The problem? The median rental price in Newark is almost $1,100 per month. That’s a huge gap between what people are expected to pay on their rent and what they can afford.

The Rutgers report also concluded that more development and rental legislation is needed, though currently public money used to construct ‘affordable’ housing may be making the situation worse. Why? Because the units are often more expensive than many residents can afford. In other words, they aren’t affordable!

Policy changes that can help increase housing affordability in cities

Cities are constantly facing the issue of housing affordability. This problem is expected to worsen with an increase in the urban population and growing demand for homes. 

Policy changes can help increase housing affordability in cities, specifically through reducing barriers to entry for new homebuilders (increased regulations on developers to create more affordable options), waiving or reducing taxes and fees, expanding the availability of land for development, using inclusionary zoning policies, and increasing density.

Could design and construction methods also play a part in creating more affordable housing? Is there a public housing example that we could follow?

Successful public housing projects do exist!

Public housing is a cornerstone of social and economic progress. But as more people are moving into cities, they are becoming more congested. Cities must find ways to accommodate the growing population while maintaining affordable housing for all.

The issue is that this need has been met with mixed results as many public housing projects have failed to make a significant impact in the reduction of poverty. However, there are some public housing projects that are successful and show us how this balance can be achieved. Here are a few examples.

Quinta Monroy Housing (QMH), Chile

QMH was proposed to provide homes for 100 families in a 5,000 sqm plot. Challenges included the land price, connection to opportunities provided in the city, and the goal of increasing the value of the homes. Further, individual housing would be inefficient while vertical housing would limit opportunities to expand homes.

The solution decided upon was to design homes as if they were being constructed at a cost of twice the actual cost. This resulted in homes that were only ‘half-built’ – all the main areas had been completed to a high standard (kitchen, bathrooms, partitioning walls, stairs). The remainder was left as a ‘blank canvas’ for residents to finish off.

The outcome?

Huge community participation. Families extending as to needs. A sense of ownership. And units that doubled in value within a year.

The government subsidized the project by $7,500 per family.

A unique affordable housing policy, Bilbao

In Bilbao, Spain, the city is building around 700 units each year, mostly for owner-occupation. The city authority has put in place policies that limit the price of affordable homes to around 7x average earnings. It has also stipulated that 75% of new housing must be affordable or social.

Development land is bought by a private/public land management company, with the city controlling a 25% share.

Bilbao’s public sector policies have helped avoid a glut of speculative housing. In the old port area, the land is being developed to provide more than 5,000 new homes and a university. Half of the new homes at Zorrozaurre will be social housing.

Quayside Village, Canada

Smaller than our previous two examples of successful affordable housing projects, but no less impressive, is Quayside Village in Canada.

A development of 19 homes, five are affordable housing. The area is designed to be accessible to wheelchairs, but it is its sustainable features that really impress. 

Design here includes many of the advantages of permaculture, including a gray water reuse system and an intensive recycling structure. Energy consumption is minimized, and the homes are easily accessible to local amenities and the city.

The project includes communal areas, such as a kitchen, laundry, and dining room, and the build is constructed using reclaimed materials. Homes are allotted as to the needs of their occupants. Residents are also able to grow their own food.

Kalkbreite, Zurich

In Zurich, previously undesirable space has been transformed into a desirable co-op with a waiting list to join. Completed in 2014, Kalbreite is one example of this.

The building houses around 400 units, including commercial space, and sits above a tram depot. It also includes a movie theater, a bed-and-breakfast, and a public courtyard.

The block innovatively separates groups of homes into mini-living and work communities.

The development perfectly incorporates urban convenience with a community that exists to help each other prosper and grow. Rents here are around 20% lower than the average rental price in Zurich. To rent a home here, you must apply to be added to the waiting list and pay CHF1,000.

Savonnerie Heymans, Brussels

This project transformed a disused soap factory and is now home to 42-low energy social housing units. These homes range from studios to 6-bedroom apartments, and lofts.

Communal facilities here include a 3D-landscaped park, a mini-forest garden, playgrounds, and a game library.

The build includes some refurbed spaces and others built from scratch. Energy conservation features include 60 sqm of solar panels, a rainwater collection system that reduces water usage, innovative ventilation, and thermal insulation.

This is a high-density project that delivers affordability, community, and sustainability.

Public housing projects as economic and social development tools

Poverty rates have been on the rise in the United States, making it difficult for many low-income families to afford a place to live and providing a way for those who can’t afford the rent to still be able to live in communities where they work, shop, and go out. 

Public housing projects are not just a way to improve the living conditions of low-income residents. They are also an economic development tool that helps to build wealth in local communities. They can also be used to promote social change and create sustainable communities. Public housing projects help to: 

  • Reduce the concentration of poverty by providing affordable housing for low-income households

  • Reduce crime rates by providing a stable environment for people who otherwise might be displaced or forced on the streets

  • Create jobs through investments in new developments, construction, and renovation projects that can lead to further job creation opportunities in the long run

For all these benefits to be attained, it is essential that we design, construct, and deliver truly affordable public housing. The handful of public housing example projects that I’ve highlighted from around the world show that this can be done.

We used to lead the world in successful public housing. It’s time we did it again. Perhaps to do so, we must first look to the wider world for innovation and ideas.

At ACB Consulting, we are committed to helping improve the communities in which we live, work, and play – including how they are conceived, designed, and created. To learn more, contact ACB Consulting.

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