Affordable housing finds a stage at the National Building Museum

The "A Better Way Home" exhibit included several structures resembling houses to showcase the affordable housing innovations featured in the exhibit. Photo by Neal Franklin

In a brightly lit corner of the National Building Museum, across a sprawling atrium, sit three wooden houses. Each house represents a different model for affordable housing and forms apart of an exhibit titled “A Better Way Home.”

In January 2020, Wells Fargo teamed up with Enterprise Community Partners, a national housing nonprofit, to sponsor a contest that asked organizations for creative solutions to the affordable housing crisis. The “Housing Affordability Breakthrough Challenge” received about 900 applicants.

On Sept. 22, 2020, six of the applicants were selected to each receive a $2.5 million grant. The museum exhibit highlights the efforts of the six recipients – Preservation of Affordable Housing, Impact Justice, the Center for NYC Neighborhoods, the Gulf Coast Housing Partnership, Forterra and come dream. come build. – and the innovations they are currently implementing.

When the exhibit, titled “A Better Way Home,” opened on Oct. 21 at 11 a.m. multiple people were already passing through the wooden houses.

The early arrivals were people who worked for Enterprise Community Partners who wanted to see how their work manifested into an exhibit, including Molly Morely, an employee at Enterprise.

“It’s not enough to provide someone with a place to live, there’s so much more that needs to go into it to build strong communities to have strong outcomes for people,” Morely said. “I’m hoping that this introduces people to what’s possible if you do affordable housing the right way and center the individual.”

The exhibit will be on display until May 8 and features the winning projects which focused on housing construction, but also resident service and support and housing finance.

When asked to choose between the projects Christi Smith, the director of programs at Enterprise Community Partners, said it was as impossible as choosing her favorite child.

“We are thrilled to have an exhibition at the National Building Museum that really showcases what those innovations are, what the intended impact of those innovations will be,” Smith said.

Employees of Enterprise Community Partners exploring the National Building Museum’s exhibit “A Better Way Home.” Photo by Neal Franklin

The museum has been intentional in the past five years about curating exhibits focused on justice in building design and housing because of contemporary housing affordability issues, said Cathy Frankel, vice president for exhibitions and collections at the National Building Museum.

“There is sort of beauty in the design of how the built environment happens,” Frankel said. “And justice is part of that and creating this equitable environment so that everybody has opportunity.”

About 20 years ago the museum hosted an exhibit focused on constructing affordable housing. Then, about five years ago, the museum featured a show focused on dividing rent prices between roommates, Frankel said.

Jayson Bennett, an occupational therapist from Canada, visited the exhibit and was interested in how housing can be created to be more accessible to whoever is living in the unit like in the Preservation of Affordable Housing’s project centered on building trauma resilient communities. Many of the people that he interacts with have difficulties with housing, he said.

“From an economic standpoint things aren’t going to improve for a while and the population is only going to increase,” said Bennett. “So we have to find out what we can do with what we have.”

The six projects feature different approaches to solving affordable housing issues.

The exhibit features Impact Justice’s Homecoming Project, which provides housing to people leaving prison by offering subsidies to homeowners to rent a room at an affordable rate.

Katie Harb visited the Building Museum to pass the time while her child slept in a stroller. When passing through the exhibit, said she was most interested in the Homecoming Project.

“I didn’t realize that so many people that left prison didn’t really find, or have, a great way to get back into society,” Harb said. “And I didn’t realize that so many of them became homeless and especially those of color.”

One of the plaques in the exhibit quotes a Homecoming Project participant named Mareo who said he received resources to focus on his job and recovery.

“I was homeless for a short while and things weren’t looking good, but The Homecoming Project really came through for me at my most difficult time,” the plaque read.

Another innovation displayed is the Mi Casita project. The exhibit showed pre-fabricated housing boxes that can be configured in multiple ways to create living options for families.

Mi Casita aims to build homes in 60 days. The homes are also 15% to 20% cheaper than building a home on-site.

The Health + Housing project from the Gulf Coast Housing Partnership seeks to offer people in search of housing another option focused on health, according to a press release from the partnership on Sept. 22, 2020. In Jackson, Mississippi, Health + Housing is partnering with UnitedHealthcare to create the first pilot program.

The initiative focuses on creating affordable housing structures with on-site clinics staffed with health care workers, said Kathy Laborde, the president and CEO of the partnership.

This project is now more important in the context of the pandemic when more people can’t leave their homes to access healthcare, said Laborde.

“Particularly after COVID, people just became more aware of how your built environment can certainly impact your health,” Laborde said. “So we just need to take advantage of the moment to get those buildings built.”

Issues |Community|Housing

Region |Washington DC

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