Making Room: Housing for a Changing America Exhibition Offers Innovation and Inspiration

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By Maria Evans, vice president of Sustainable Communities, Partnership & Innovation Initiative, Fannie Mae

My team and I spend most of our time discussing some of the intractable issues related to the shortage of quality affordable housing and the impact this has on a community and its residents. We are constantly asking tough questions like, “How might the housing and education sectors partner to provide stable home and school experiences for low-income kids?” “How might we use innovative design and technology to improve affordable housing to better support health, promote wellness, or prevent disease?” “How might we prepare a workforce that is ready to participate in job opportunities that drive technical innovation in the housing industry?” By asking the tough questions, we believe it will lead us to bold solutions and new partners for Fannie Mae. So our visit to the Making Room: Housing for A Changing America exhibition at the National Building Museum was not only thought-provoking, as it highlighted many of the same issues we focus on, but also inspiring and energizing for all of us.

For those of you who may have missed the exhibit, let me give you a sense of what we experienced. The anchor of the exhibit is the shifting demographics and lifestyles changes in the U.S. For example:

  • Today, nuclear families account for only 20 percent of America’s households, down from 43 percent in 1950.
  • Nearly 30 percent of households today are single adults living alone, a growing phenomenon across all ages and incomes.
  • Twenty-eight percent of adults are choosing to house share.
  • The number of people aged 65 and older will reach a projected 74 million by 2030.

Walking through the exhibition, I was struck by the fact that these stunning shifts in the way we live are not reflected in our housing supply. The question then becomes, “Why doesn’t U.S. housing stock reflect these societal changes and how could it become a better reflection?”

Recognizing that safe and affordable housing is at the center of healthy, vibrant communities expands our thinking, invites innovation, and encourages cross-sector collaboration on the actions needed to truly address many of the societal issues facing this country. When affordable housing is part of a mixed-income community with good schools, health and wellness opportunities, and good-paying jobs, it is much easier for those communities to address longstanding disparities in educational or health outcomes of low-income residents.

This idea is at the heart of Fannie Mae’s Sustainable Communities Initiative. It’s also at the center of one of the many projects we are supporting through our Innovation Challenge—a $10 million commitment to finding and supporting innovative ideas that address affordable housing where it intersects with key aspects of the community, such as health, education, and employment. The West Denver Renaissance Collaborative is implementing an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) program in nine neighborhoods across west Denver as a way to enable long-term, low-income homeowners to remain part of their communities and benefit from recent investments in Denver. For this program, the ADU will be a detached residence, between 450-870 square feet, in the backyard of the primary home and will serve as a rental unit, creating a new income source for homeowners and increasing their property value. The ADU also adds to the affordable housing supply, allowing new residents to move into an established community. We expect the overall result will be a vibrant, multi-generational, mixed-income community that better reflects how we’re living today.

The Making Room exhibition showcased the creative ways that designers, developers, and architects are responding to our current living arrangements and was a great reminder about the importance of good design, especially in small spaces, like a studio apartment or even an ADU. While some of the most innovative features were high-tech solutions, many were low-tech yet practical ways designers and developers are making the most of available space. These innovations allow for comfortable living in smaller spaces, which are both more affordable to construct, less expensive to live in, and can be leveraged in any neighborhood. For me, the entire exhibit underscored how much could be accomplished if the housing industry and adjacent sectors started to think differently about design.

That is why I am excited that on March 14 Chrysanthe Broikos, the curator of the exhibition, and Sophie Wilkinson, head of construction and design for Common, will be part of Fannie Mae in:house, our speaker series that brings together innovators, solvers, academics, and entrepreneurs to explore innovative ideas in housing. The timing of our conversation couldn’t be better as we prepare to announce the awardees of our second phase and launch the third and final phase of The Innovation Challenge, which will focus on the intersections of affordable housing, education, and economic mobility.

By tackling these issues holistically—with innovative ideas and like-minded partners—we can identify solutions that will increase access to healthy, vibrant, sustainable communities.

Visit The Challenge website to learn more about our work and sign-up to receive updates. Click here to register to attend the Fannie Mae in:house session on March 14.