How Nontraditional Innovation is Rejuvenating Public Housing

How Nontraditional Innovation is Rejuvenating Public Housing
The Crisis of Affordable Housing: Discovering Innovative Solutions

The crisis of affordable public housing can be felt across America on a large scale. Many poor and impoverished families that reside in public housing projects are consistently unable to pay rent for their dwellings while dealing with a host of other social complications that make living in public housing even more difficult. Creating affordable public housing involves the use of innovative processes that reduce construction cost and maximize livable square footage so that rents can remain affordable. Through the rising popularity of nontraditional approaches to innovation, many organizations tasked with addressing these difficult housing challenges are adopting such methods to uncover previously unthought of solutions.

The concept of crowdsourcing especially is paving the way for federal agencies (such as HUD), nonprofits, and private housing companies alike to gain new perspectives and approaches to complex public housing topics from unlikely and/or underutilized sources. Crowdsourcing proponents and stakeholders hope to add fresh ideas and new insights to the shared pool of public knowledge, augmenting innovation and productivity in the current public housing landscape.


The federal government could particularly benefit from these nontraditional forms of innovation by implementing these practices into standard government processes. The struggling affordable public housing system in America, for example, points to a glaring flaw in standard government process that makes applying the best ideas for real-world implementation by the government virtually impossible.

Background of Public Housing Developments in America

For context, the nuanced and complex problem of affordable housing dates back to post WW2. At the conclusion of the Second World War, the government – in an attempt to combat the current housing shortage – initiated a large-scale effort to construct affordable public housing projects to serve as dwelling places for lower middle-class working families. However, as time passed, with the economic boom and “white flight” in the 1960’s contributing to the mass exodus of lower-middle class families into suburbia, the housing projects that had been intended to be inhabited by these people were all but abandoned.

Chicago Housing Project in the mid-1900's
Chicago Housing Project in the mid-1900’s

The type of people left in their place were society’s worst of the worst: the poorest, most disorganized, non-working families, almost all of them headed by single women. Concurrent with development was the prevalence of father absenteeism in the African American community, exacerbating the already complex problem of poverty for blacks in America.

Complications Associated with Improving Public Housing

For over half a century since the introduction of public housing, the U.S federal government has deliberated on a number of approaches to deal with the complications associated with public housing. It is important to note that the public housing problem is complex and not merely economic; one must factor the social implications of living in impoverished conditions into the equation (as this factor itself contributes to a large host of other problems), while also being cognizant of the large disparity between the amount of blacks that dwell within public housing projects compared to other races.

The Public Housing Agencies programs, started by Bill Clinton in 1996 for the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development as a strategy to help streamline and expedite efforts towards the endeavor for improved public housing, is unique in the amount of flexibility and freedom that it is provided in relation to other government agencies. Responsible for the direct oversight and resourcing of the public housing projects, the Public Housing Agencies have flexibility on how federal funds are distributed for their directives, and on what specific policies they want to enforce, rather than abiding by standard federal regulations.Unfortunately, due to the typical limitations of government processes, including endless bureaucracy and the disproportionate allocation of government funds, complex problems like public housing tend to get much worse before they get any better: Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson provides his take on the situation:

“The sources of current problems in the inner city (public housing projects being a major contributor to these problems) are exceedingly complex and their amelioration calls for imaginative and comprehensive programs of economic and social reform that are in sharp contrast to the current approaches to social policy in America, which are based on short-term political considerations.”

Innovative and Comprehensive Approaches to Improvement

A GAO report from 2015 offered a couple of different improvement recommendations for HUD to consider, such as: creating a plan to properly staff the implementation of 100 new housing authorities being added to the program, collecting better data on how those agencies spend their federal funds, creating clear guidance on how those agencies report and analyze their policies, and monitoring how those policies affect tenants.

After leaving this process in the hands of the government for such a long time, the rising popularity of crowdsourcing and multiple-input ideation environments (such as hackathons and challenge competitions) has led to increased efforts to implement such innovative concepts into large-scale, real-world application.


As it stands, standard government procedures do not allow much wiggle-room for building architects to experiment with cutting-edge innovative building techniques in the affordable public housing design process. In the designing of affordable public housing projects, the federal government tends to not stray from tried and tested building types and methods; stringent zoning regulations, budgeting constraints, and rigid building timelines are primary examples of the limitations of typical government process as it pertains to the amplification of innovative and affordable public housing in America.

Starting in 2014, the HUD Office of Policy Development and Research (PD&R) initiated its annual HUD Innovation in Affordable Housing Student Design & Planning Competition. HUD uses this competition as a way to foster conversation with the private sector about potential innovative building solutions for the complexities of designing and constructing affordable housing projects within the guidelines of federal government building protocols. Such experiments and other similar programs have provided HUD and other agencies with added perspectives within their growing attempts to incorporate a higher degree of innovation in their process. As a result of such strategies, government agencies are now seeking to apply insights gained from their innovation practices into standard operating procedure. Inclusionary upzoning in Washington DC is one pertinent example of an implementation of innovative affordable housing being discussed in the real-world.

Inclusionary Upzoning in Washington DC

As the burgeoning Washington DC will need to accommodate more housing as its population increases in coming years, talk of constructing taller, denser developments has become more and more frequent. When one hears the word ‘suburb’, one might call to mind a small residential community. For some suburban neighborhoods in the surrounding DC region however, such as Arlington, Bethesda, and Tyson’s Corner, this association is not as accurate. Such places have already begun the process of becoming more urbanized than suburbanized.


Going forward, relaxing height and other zoning restrictions would allow for an increased housing supply in a given neighborhood; housing experts have continued to throw around the term inclusionary upzoning and have lauded its potential benefits through its expanded implementation. Within the policy of inclusionary upzoning, subsidized housing is mixed in with market housing as to avoid stigmatization and alienation from the rest of a given neighborhood. According to Lisa Sturtevant, inclusionary upzoning is a policy used in jurisdictions across the Washington DC region, including Arlington and Fairfax counties, and other high cost markets have pushed for similar policy, including New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

Push for Greater Innovation


Overall, when innovation becomes standard and discovering solutions to complex problems is emphasized, good things tend to happen. The more the government makes a concerted effort to foster innovation in their procedures, the more innovation that will be yielded through and within government work.


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