Back to top
Renovating the American Dream

Renovating the American Dream

The future of shelter

Illustration by

At 8 a.m. on a Monday morning, her phone is already ringing off the hook. As our interview begins, Joyce Sacco ’94MPA pauses to take a call on her Philadelphia office line and receives some bad news. “I just hope it’s not about another young person,” she says.

Sacco is the director of housing at the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services. She works on the critical nexus of the nation’s housing crisis: affordable housing for people with behavioral health issues that make a stable home hard to come by and hard to keep. Among the populations she serves are young adults aging out of the foster care system, those impacted by the opioid crisis, the unemployed or underemployed, those with serious mental illness, and people with disabilities who can’t stay in wheelchair-inaccessible shelters. While Sacco believes in “housing first,” she points out that housing someone without support for those other issues doesn’t solve the problem for the long term. “Putting someone who’s still actively using in an apartment by themselves is oftentimes not the best option. That doesn’t help the person, their neighbors, or the landlord.”

Across the nation, there is a shortage in multiple categories of housing, from subsidized to low-income to market-rate. The standard for affordable housing cost is 30% or less of one’s income, yet 46% of American renters from all economic levels exceed that threshold. The cost of housing has far outstripped the rate of wage increases and inflation. For some, this puts them at risk of homelessness, and for others, it sets off a chain of events that compromise their mental and physical health.

Sketch of houses floating away with balloons on top.

“People may not be homeless, but they may be cost burdened,” says Sacco. “Meaning, they’re paying 50% of their income. So what does that mean? They’re not eating well? They’re not getting their medication, or getting medical care, because they have to maintain the apartment?”

Understanding the housing crisis starts with the simple idea that there are not enough homes for everyone, and yet the implications are sprawling and complex. UMass alumni are asking questions like: How do we build better homes—and neighborhoods—for the long term? What does affordable housing mean for people in both cities and towns at all different income levels? What makes a community, and how have disruptive technologies like Airbnb changed our growing concept of home?

From local housing officials in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, to builders in western Massachusetts, our alums attest that the right solutions vary, but the intentions are the same: to rebuild our sense of home and community in a moment where neither can be taken for granted.

Housing math

Despite Sacco’s specialty, she doesn’t think mental health is the sole root of homelessness in Philadelphia. “It’s really a housing availability and affordability issue. If there were enough types of housing that meet people’s needs, there wouldn’t be homelessness. It’s kind of that simple.” In Philadelphia, for every three people needing housing services, there is capacity for only two. “So what happens to that third person?” asks Sacco. “They stay in jail, they stay on the street, they stay in a long-term behavioral health hospital.” Without available units, there is little Sacco can do. “You can wrap services around people, but if you don’t have an affordable housing unit …” she trails off in frustration. “We scrimp and every unit is like gold.”

The U.S. is short about 1.5 million homes. And while the specific impacts that Sacco sees in Philadelphia are in many ways unique to the city, the impact is being felt everywhere. The housing crisis is both a national catastrophe with cascading effects and an extremely local problem.

Los Angeles has been described as the U.S. epicenter of homelessness. Azeen Khanmalek ’10, who is the director of affordable housing production in the office of L.A. Mayor Karen Bass, says that on any given night, 40,000 people in the city are unhoused. Further, he says, “African American folks make up less than 10% of the city of Los Angeles, but account for one-third of the people experiencing homelessness in the city.” Increased levels of homelessness among already marginalized groups drive even more inequitable outcomes.

We scrimp and every unit is like gold.

Khanmalek’s work centers on how to increase the supply of affordable housing and build it faster, which involves solving problems around permitting, making approvals happen faster, supporting stronger policies, and using city land for development. But the funding for initiatives, which range from federal housing vouchers to city programs, isn’t nearly enough to slow the rate of homelessness—which has nearly doubled in the past 10 years.

Short-term solutions like building shelters might be less expensive, but they don’t solve the problem. “If we have 45,000 homeless people in the city of Los Angeles and we build one additional shelter bed, we don’t have 44,999 homeless people, we still have 45,000 homeless people. The only way to end someone’s experience of homelessness is through a permanent home of their own,” says Khanmalek.

A labyrinthine stack of upside-down and right side up houses and ladders.

Spiraling needs

The housing shortage also increasingly affects more people as housing prices rise. “Many middle-income people are priced out of buying a house, so they rent instead. That shrinks the rental market for everyone, but makes it especially tough for people who are underemployed or living below the poverty line. They’re the last in the pecking order,” says Sacco. The impacts of the short supply are felt most acutely by the lowest-income part of the population.

The “housing theory of everything,” coined in 2021 by economists Sam Bowman and Ben Southwood, touches on some of the points that Sacco and Khanmalek address: Without secure, affordable homes available to all, we experience a cascading series of effects that include health issues, economic inequality, and climate change. This happens at both micro and macro levels. For an individual with behavioral health issues, Sacco points out, dealing with mental or physical health is very difficult while being unhoused. “You can’t really start to work on employment, physical, or mental health issues if you’re living on the street.”

The housing crisis is both a national catastrophe with cascading effects and an extremely local problem.

Khanmalek agrees that multiple other crises stem from the housing shortage. “It’s not just a drag on our local economy but our regional economies. The housing crisis contributes to climate change by driving people to live farther and farther away from their jobs and having to commute long distances. It locks people out of wealth creation by not only draining their resources but also because buying a home is one of the primary ways that people climb to the middle class.”

Densify to revitalize

Khanmalek points out that “before, we used to deal with shortages by just building out. We used to build new suburbs, new subdivisions, just go farther and farther away from city centers, but we are reaching the outer limits of how far people can live from their jobs and the environmental degradation that we’re willing to tolerate. We’re not able to deal with our housing supply problem by just building out anymore. In order to provide opportunities for people, you have to ensure that new housing development projects are near transit so that they are accessible to job centers, resources, schools, and parks,” he says.

Sketch of a large construction crane lowering houses onto a stack.

As with other public projects, “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) pressure makes it hard to build housing where there is space for it or where it is needed. “If you need affordable housing, you need it to be built somewhere, and the NIMBY problem arises not just for affordable and supportive housing, but any multifamily housing,” Khanmalek says. “NIMBY resistance is stopping housing from being built, which we desperately need. The past half century of land-use policy as it relates to housing protected existing single-family, low-density neighborhoods that are generally wealthier and whiter, and has generally driven more multifamily development to lower-resource areas. Not only are lower-resource communities bearing the burden of new growth, but that is also driving gentrification and displacement.” Adding housing density to mostly single-family, wealthy neighborhoods has been successful in other cities at reinvigorating neighborhoods; it can bring down housing costs, support nearby small businesses, and reduce carbon by encouraging people to shop locally.

Building what we need—and greening what we have

Seth Lawrence-Slavas ’17 ’19MA, CEO of Wright Builders, builds in western Massachusetts with a long-term view, solving not only immediate housing shortages but making sure we don’t end with the same problems in 30 years. As a builder, he sees the problem as more than just numbers. “You can build all you want, but if you’re not building something that somebody wants and you’re not building it in an area that allows for people to progress, then you’re just wasting resources.”

As building new homes has failed to keep pace with the number of homes needed, we’re also left with aging houses that require significant investment to meet needs. Home construction has dropped significantly since 2006. Public subsidized housing stock expires, and new investments have not kept pace. “There has been a long retreat on the part of the public sector from supplying affordable housing for the people who need it most—since the 1950s, and especially since the 1980s—to the point where public investments in housing are extremely anemic overall,” Khanmalek observes.

Long-term thinking is at the core of Lawrence-Slavas’s building philosophy, and that starts with the impact that we have on the planet. “We’re trying to do no harm here,” he says. “We’re not just building code-minimum buildings that are gonna last 30 years and then need to be replaced.” Built into this long-term thinking is the idea that buildings should be efficient and fitted with the latest clean energy technology to keep the cost of living low.

It also means looking at existing buildings and figuring out how to make them cost effective for today. But each case is different, and in some cases retrofitting an older building creates more carbon than it saves; so Lawrence-Slavas relies on software to help make decisions that have the lowest impact on the climate. He chooses materials like new-growth wood over materials with higher embedded carbon, like steel. He focuses on efficient solutions that also make the housing more affordable for the long term. “What people talk about in affordable housing is also that once you get people into that housing, there are still continual costs. So eliminating energy costs, creating efficiency, that type of thing, it actually makes those building projects more feasible.”

The meaning of home

Lawrence-Slavas bought his own first house when he was 27. “It was in Vermont; it was an old house. I’ve always worked a lot and I’ve always worked really hard, but I was never able to save anything. And I finally got to this point where I could put 20% down on a $120,000 house in Vermont, and I did it. What it meant was that I could start actually building equity. That one house changed my life.”

Tom Barrett ’86 has also found his own sense of home amid the changing housing market. He owns a four-bedroom house in Stowe, Vermont, and began renting out rooms or occasionally the whole house on Airbnb, using the extra income to cover his mortgage. “I was kind of nervous and it was kind of strange to have strangers come into my house at first. But the experience has been fantastic.”

He has mixed feelings about Airbnb as a whole, and cites it as a factor in making homes less affordable (the high number of Airbnbs in his area has disrupted the rental market). But for him, it has been a positive. In addition to the revenue, he’s formed long-term friendships with people who have stayed at his place, including a couple that stayed there for three months while looking for their new home. But he also notes that both he and his guests long for privacy, and he has increasingly found ways to give people some space without too much personal interaction.

The tension Barrett feels between homeownership and cost, connectedness and privacy, shows how the American dream is evolving. The house we imagine as part of the American dream sets neighbors apart with picket fences. But as social isolation has risen drastically in the last 10 years, causing its own serious physical and mental health impacts, single-family homeownership is increasingly not meeting social needs, leaving people disconnected from their communities.

Sketch of construction worker looking at large high-rise buildings in the distance.

Our idealized notion of home didn’t happen accidentally. Khanmalek points out that “since World War II, we’ve moved to a nation of relying on automobiles, suburbanization, and the kind of single-family homeownership and restrictive zoning and land-use policies that really protected this one kind of idealized lifestyle.” Federal and local policies all contribute to reinforcing this vision.

Sweat equity

Megan McDonough ’04, ’08MS is the executive director of Pioneer Valley Habitat for Humanity, whose Executive Director. Her work is to help lower-income people and families in Hampshire and Franklin counties build their own homes alongside experts and volunteers. The Habitat for Humanity program pairs this “sweat equity” with an affordable mortgage, paving the way for a more accessible homebuying experience. McDonough describes these homeowners as people who might have a decent job, “but they’re a one-income household and they just can’t make the numbers work to purchase, and their rent keeps going up every year. Or their landlord decides to sell their house and they’re left with having to move again and again, or living in substandard conditions.”

McDonough can see the scale of the crisis but also believes solutions are within reach. “We need people building rental apartments that are subsidized. We need market rate apartments, we need subsidized homeownership, we need market rate homeownership. Rather than being overwhelmed by the enormity of the housing crisis, Habitat for Humanity says, what can we do today?”

So far, her chapter has built 52 homes, with four currently under construction and three slated for next year. Some of the volunteers who build those homes are current UMass students with the Habitat for Humanity club. The process of building their own home connects new homeowners to their communities as well.

The future for our homes and how we live could be a bright one if we create connected, integrated communities that support shorter commutes, help local businesses thrive, and create a more balanced mix of housing that lowers costs for everyone. Just as rising prices can harm people at all economic levels, solutions for affordable housing can give many people additional opportunities and a better quality of life.

So how do we get from a seemingly obstinate problem to this vision of the future? McDonough isn’t daunted. “We have hundreds of volunteers who come together to make this dream of homeownership possible for people. On their own, they couldn’t house someone. But by breaking down this big problem into smaller pieces, we say, okay, who’s gonna go buy the nails? Who’s gonna pick up the hammer?”

Learn more about how you can help from Seth Lawrence-Slavas ’17, ’19MA as he walks us through the tenets of sustainable housing.