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11 Affordable Housing Alternatives for City Dwellers

After World War II, white, middle-class Americans flocked to the suburbs from the city. Today, that trend is reversing. As post-suburbanites move back into cities, escalating housing costs are forcing low and middle income folks and people of color out to the suburbs. This shift was described by Alan Ehrenhalt in his 2013 book, The Great Inversion. The result is that the diverse communities that make cities resilient creative centers are being displaced or forced to find new, affordable housing options.

In June, Shareable partnered with the San Francisco Public Press to explore the housing crisis. Through a series of articles and an event dubbed Hack the Housing Crisis we looked at causes of and solutions to the housing crisis. While the event was focused on San Francisco - the most expensive housing market in the United States - cities around the world are facing similar problems or soon will be.

Through the month of June, we published articles about public housing done right, new rules for in-law suites in San Francisco, biourbanism, housing auctions in Detroit, a follow-up to Hack the Housing Crisis, and more. Our partners at San Francisco Public Press also ran a number of housing stories online and are issuing a special housing-themed print edition of their paper this month.

Here, we’ve rounded up 11 affordable housing alternatives for city dwellers because if we want cities to thrive, we need to rethink how we house everybody, not just the rich.

1. Community Land Trusts

Land trusts create permanently affordable housing. Photo: Northwest Community Land Trust Coalition

A community land trust is a nonprofit organization that develops permanently affordable housing for the community by taking the cost of the land out of the speculative market. There are also community land trust gardens, commercial buildings, civic buildings, green spaces, rural projects and more, but the core of the model is to create opportunities for lower income families to find stable, affordable housing. One example of land trust housing is the San Francisco Community Land Trust. Learn how to start a community land trust here.

2. Accessory Dwelling Units

Accessory dwelling units can include backyard cottages, basement apartments, and converted garages. Photo: radworld (CC)

Also called mother-in-law suites, accessory dwelling units (ADUs) are secondary units that exist on property that would normally have only one dwelling on it. These include free-standing guest houses, converted garages, and basement apartments. Sometimes these are built without the proper permits, but they offer a way to house more people on an existing parcel of land. Cities, including San Francisco, are increasingly looking at ADUs as a relatively quick and easy way to increase housing supply.

3. Public Housing

Public housing in Europe works. Photo: SWL Housing in Belgium

Public housing has been demonized in the U.S., but in Europe it serves millions of middle- and low-income families successfully while checking runaway speculation in the private market. As Shareable co-founder Neal Gorenflo argued in his Hack the Housing Crisis speech, creating more public and cooperative housing is key to tackling the housing crisis in San Francisco and beyond. Any long-term solution to the housing crisis requires taking a significant amount of housing out of the speculative market, which will require big, complex, policy change. This analysis of public housing in New York City, Singapore, and Vienna shows the way.

4. Cooperatives

Members of the Sanford Walk housing coop in London. Photo: Frank Baron

Housing cooperatives are a proven path to affordable housing where the residents own and manage a property together. By pooling their buying power, members can save on the purchase cost as well as on expenses such as utilities and WiFi. Housing coops come in all sizes and require skillful organizing to thrive. If you can't find a housing coop nearby to join, then start one. Check out Shareable staffer Mira Luna's guide to starting one.

5. Baugruppen

Baugruppen is co-created by the community and designed for its specific needs. Photo: Grist

Originating in Germany, baugruppen is a model for sustainable, affordable housing that is co-designed, co-created and co-owned by its residents. Drawing from both cohousing and condominium models, baugruppen is built around the specific needs and desires of individual communities and keeps costs significantly down by removing developers from the picture. For more information about baugruppen see Baugruppen: Germany's Sustainable Community Housing Model.

6. Micro Houses

Micro housing offers interesting solutions to the housing crisis, including a tiny house village in Austin, Texas.

Micro houses—including tiny houses, cottages, shipping containers, mobile homes and more—offer affordable housing for those who can live in small spaces. Small homes are less expensive and more energy efficient than larger houses and they can be built or wheeled into lots that can't accommodate larger homes. And micro houses are small and customizable enough to lend themselves to innovative housing solutions. For instance, there's a tiny house village for the homeless in Austin, Texas.

7. Tiny Apartments

Tiny apartments offer an affordable housing option. Photo: TinyHouseTalk

Tiny apartments allow for incredible housing density in cities. Generally falling in the 100 to 200 square foot range, there are, however, some extreme examples that test the limits of tiny. In Tokyo, for instance, there are apartments that are aptly described as coffin-sized. A recent street art project parodying the high cost of housing in San Francisco saw trash cans and planter boxes going several thousand dollars each. For those who can embrace minimalism, tiny apartments offer an affordable alternative to expensive urban housing.

8. Senior Community Housing

Community housing offers seniors an affordable way to age in community. Photo: Mary Helen Rogers Senior Community.

Seniors prize safety, location, affordability, and community engagement in housing. Enter senior community housing. The idea is that seniors, rather than living in isolated apartments or houses, can live in housing communities that prioritize community interaction. Many of these are designed with affordability in mind. Good examples of senior community housing are the Mary Helen Rogers Senior Community in San Francisco and the Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly in Boston, Massachusetts.

9. Modular Housing

A modular house being moved into place. Photo: San Francisco Business Times

Pre-fabricated, modular dwellings offer interesting housing options including placing housing units on top of existing buildings. They can also be more affordable and energy efficient than traditional homes. As Taeko Takagi of ZETA Design + Build pointed out, factory-built homes take 75 percent less time to build than traditional construction and save 20 percent in materials cost. Modular homes could provide housing on idle land quickly, efficiently and affordably. At the event, Tim McCormick, founder of Houselets suggested that small, prefabricated homes could even be put in garages, driveways, and parking spaces.

10. Coliving

Casa Netural in Italy provides a place for people to live and work together.

Coliving combines shared housing, community living, and collaboration on professional projects in one neat package. Sharing housing is nothing new—college students and young city-dwellers regularly share housing to cut costs. But there are differences that separate rent-paying housemates from a coliving community. Primarily, coliving is, from the outset, built around an intention to create a tight, productive community to accelerate personal and community development. Chelsea Rustrum, an entrepreneur and coliving advocate, describes it like this: “We have this vision in common of how we want to change the world.” For more information about coliving check out the article Hacking Home and Coliving.org.

11. Work Trade

With work trade, you can barter your time and skills, including gardening, for housing. Photo: Cat Johnson

Work trade for housing offers a way to exchange skills and elbow grease for a place to live. Services bartered can include pet-sitting, childcare, yard maintenance, elder-care, house-sitting, handyperson services, gardening and much more. Benefits of work trades can include paying rent with your time rather than dollars, and work flexibility. One drawback of work trade is that you may end up living where you work, but in the right situation, if clear boundaries and communication are set, this isn't an issue.

The Wrap

If we want our cities to thrive in the long run, we need to make sure they offer housing options for everyone. What's your favorite affordable housing solution? Please share in comments.

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Top photo of a coliving community: Alexander Van Dijk (CC-BY). Follow @CatJohnson on Twitter

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