Retaining Wall.

DesignIdeation: Affordable Housing

Across the nation, high-growth cities are challenged with providing affordable housing for their workforce. Public, private and nonprofit entities are joining forces to find a solution, and LandDesign’s Frank McMahan, PE is advising them on how design can play a key role in the success of affordable housing. Through cost-saving design, working hand-in-hand with municipalities and advocating within communities, Frank understands that the only way to solve this crisis is to bring everyone together. 

Below, Frank shares his thoughts on how engineers can begin to positively impact the affordable housing crisis.

What are the challenges communities are facing in providing more affordable housing options? 

Finding good parcels of land is the biggest issue we are facing. Affordable housing isn’t being developed in high-income areas like Ballantyne or South Charlotte because the land cost is so high, which is why you see it popping up in lower-income areas. Charlotte isn’t the only market where the cost of land is an issue. Across the country, land is cheaper in lower-income areas. So, when we are asked, “why we aren’t doing this in high-income areas?” — that’s why. 

Aside from land cost, are there other challenges in developing affordable housing? 

In terms of the community support, whether high- or low-income, no one wants affordable housing in their backyard. There’s a misconception that affordable housing is public or Section 8 Housing, but it’s not. Typically, non-profit companies and private developers are driving this type of development. Affordable housing accommodates civil servants and the working class: teachers, police officers, sanitation workers, etc. The working class can’t afford home ownership or market rate apartment rents because their salary doesn’t correspond with what the cost of living is. We are actively working with developers to change the stigma surrounding affordable housing and gain community support for these projects.

Funding is another challenge. For example, to build a standard multi-family garden style apartment community that’s affordable, it’s going to cost the developer about $170,000 per unit, which is the same cost per unit for market rate. There is a large gap between funding from banks, low-income tax credits and Housing Trust Fund money. Those sources help close the finance gap, but it’s not always enough. 

Are there ways to stretch public funds to help close the funding gap? 

The Housing Trust Fund and banks understand how difficult it is to finance these projects. They provide matching bonds that help, but the gap is large and sometimes hard to close. There are ways to stretch public funds by working hand-in-hand with municipalities to find exemptions through stormwater solutions, tree-save or relaxing some requirements for infrastructure, such as sidewalks, drive aisles, etc. Affordable housing projects not only adhere to jurisdictional standards, but also meet a whole other set of guidelines that are dictated by the requirements of the state to obtain and utilize low-income housing tax credits. Affordable housing units are built to market standards, no different than any other apartment complex.

Both the public and private sectors have announced funds to support the development of affordable projects but is that going to make enough of a difference to meet market demand? 

Charlotte is 5,000 units deficient in affordable housing and it’s going to take years to close that gap. On top of that, affordable units have a 15-year lifespan and not everyone is a long-term affordable housing developer. Once a new developer gets a hold of an affordable property, a lot of times they will renovate and rent units at a market rate. It’s a vicious cycle of new affordable units becoming available, while others are going off the market. It can be tough to get ahead.

How has LandDesign become a partner to developers and community groups interested in developing affordable housing? 

LandDesign is involved from the very beginning when developers start looking for land. We help them put together teams and navigate the process for getting affordable projects off the ground. We also work within communities to help change the public perception of affordable housing. What most people don’t realize is that everyone is aligned — us, developers and the community. At the end of the day, we are all trying to create a community that adds diversity to our schools, promotes upward mobility and provides an affordable place to live for those who need it most.  

How many affordable housing projects is LandDesign currently involved in? 

We are currently involved in a dozen projects from the preliminary QAP (Qualified Allocation Plan), the process to get funding from the state for affordable housing, through final QAP, when the developer is awarded tax credits. Most people are not aware that affordable projects take approximately eight months longer to complete than non-affordable projects. There are 22 additional tasks between with the city and state that non-affordable projects do not have to go through. However, the city and state understand how difficult the process is and LandDesign is working closely with municipalities to streamline the process as much as possible. All entities are aware affordable housing is an issue, but by working together we can close the gap at the rate it needs to happen. 

What started your passion for affordable housing? 

It started when I began working with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership in 2014. I was working with the Partnership on Brightwalk, a mixed-income community in Charlotte, and I was asked to do a preliminary QAP, which I was not familiar with at the time. As I dove deeper into the project, I realized the challenges Charlotte was facing with affordable housing. Also, my wife is a teacher and most of her coworkers can’t afford an apartment or home due to the rising cost of living. It became a passion when I saw and knew people that were in these situations. These are hard working, educated people that are struggling to find a place to live. Where in Charlotte can you find a three-bedroom apartment for $800? You won’t. Affordable housing allows people to focus on what matters — their families and opportunities for upward mobility. 

What role does engineering play in affordable housing? 

As engineers, we work to find design solutions that save money in the long run. At the beginning of a project, we coordinate with local jurisdictional agencies to discuss their plans and requirements for the site. By coordinating planning and development efforts early on, we can anticipate road widenings, utility relocations and extensions and design elements that can create additional costs. Developers want to be ahead of those challenges and we are here to find cost-saving design solutions that will make an affordable project successful.

Do you think the civil engineering field as a whole can become more involved with affordable housing? 

Absolutely, people don’t realize the extent of the issue and how to get involved. Most designers look at affordable housing like any other project. At LandDesign, we don’t see it that way. There’s a reason why we are doing this — to help people. People who are involved with these projects are not in it for profit. These are passion projects and they have to be, otherwise it wouldn’t happen.

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