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.