Government Technology

Living Large on a Small Footprint

August 25, 2014 By Jake Auchincloss, Data-Smart City Solutions

This story was originally published by Data-Smart City Solutions

Engineers at MIT’s Media Lab may soon offer cities another lever to increase both workforce housing and urban density. The CityHome is a transformable wall system that integrates furniture, storage, exercise equipment, lighting, office space, and entertainment hardware. Critically, the CityHome is both modular and scalable: it is smart architecture that can be inserted into a “dumb” chassis, thereby relieving risk-averse developers from up-front overhead costs.

The physical constraints on housing

To consider how the CityHome could help increase the housing supply for families making between 60% and 120% of area median income, it is useful to think of workforce housing as a three-dimensional geometry problem. The first two dimensions refer to area: what plots of land are suitable for affordable development. This suitability is constrained by public transit access, which is usually critical for workforce families, and by the ability of developers to aggregate enough parcels for large-scale construction. Infrastructure investment and innovative policies such as graduated density zoning could help alleviate these respective shortfalls, but they are long-term initiatives that cannot bridge current housing shortfalls.

If the first two dimensions are area, the third is density: how many workforce residents can be housed on a plot of land. This is constrained by the percentage of space that is required to be affordable, by zoning and community restrictions on height, and, critically, by the size of the units. Despite champions like Professor Edward Glaeser, economist and urban policy expert at Harvard, few cities seem ready to construct buildings tall enough, and sufficiently free of distortionary price ceilings, to ramp up housing supply.

The lever with the most torque

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