May 24, 2021

3 Developer Mindsets for Groundbreaking Affordable Housing  

Mom and child playing with toy mushrooms on an outdoor play space at an apartment community

Pictured: Via Verde housing development, New York City

Ever see affordable housing that is remarkable? Its common areas or landscape design uniquely meet resident needs. It reflects neighborhood cultural identity. It uniquely addresses the social determinants of health. Or maybe it is a palpably positive force for the surrounding community.

You might then wonder, "How’d they do that?" 

Despite extensive financial and regulatory constraints on affordable housing development, some projects are still able to yield extraordinary results, but how? Enterprise has interrogated this question over the past ten years of the Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute (AHDLI), observing and listening to the 129 developers and 94 designers convened to workshop diverse national projects.

What we’ve learned is that developers who jump past the status quo share core mindsets and approaches to their work.

The good news? Experienced developers, and even not as experienced ones, have been easily adding these practices to their toolkits for the last ten years, greatly increasing the impact of their projects for the people and communities they serve. 

The better news? Supporting developers in cultivating these mindsets and others is one of the primary goals of the 2021 Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute, with applications open May 26 through June 23, 2021. 

1. A Focus on the “Big Picture”

We’ve learned that developers who still have great ideas intact, even after value-engineering, share the sentiment of Enterprise’s founder Jim Rouse: “Without vision there is no power.”

This mindset requires you to put down the spreadsheet and be visionary.

A project of lasting value needs a strong idea. Without a clear vision of what you are trying to change, what you are trying to improve, it is easy to get lost in spreadsheets and constraints.

If you want to accomplish something extraordinary, you need this vision to sustain you through the long process of assembling the development partners, the financing and political backing to realize an affordable housing project.

A vision is what you refer back to in value engineering to make sure you don’t accidentally lose the heart of your project. It is the story you tell to motivate stakeholders.

With a vision in place, developers can follow the advice of Matthew Littell, architect and 2017 AHDLI design resource team member, on how to accomplish big things. ‘Be mindful of finding the “sweet spot” in the process.  It’s not too early and not too late, the door is open to do something great. Sometimes you close your eyes and you wake up and all of a sudden, you’re in construction documents.”

Mastery requires a focus on goals, not tactics.

Affordable housing development is hard. There is always a constraint or limitation coming to crush your favorite project feature. So how do high performing developers make sure great ideas make it to the finish line? They stay focused on the big goal, rather than the tactics.

This requires letting go of predetermined solutions and being openminded about how to get to the finish line.

For instance, David Rowe, chief administrative officer at CAMBA Housing Ventures and former AHDLI participant, was committed in one of CAMBA’s projects to make the building corridors warm and welcoming to improve residents’ quality of life. The initial approach identified was locating a small window next to each door, a tactic that quickly proved too expensive. Instead of nixing the goal, the CAMBA team got back to their original intention: friendlier corridors and entrances. In the end, the developer and their design team identified a brightly colored accent wall next to each door as an effective way to fulfill on their dual goals of coming in on budget and improving the resident experience.    

Want to develop your big idea and your ability to hang onto it?  Download the Enterprise Design Matters Project Mission Writer.

2. Valuing Curiosity over Expertise

Developers know an awful lot about a lot – it’s the nature of managing such a multi-faceted process. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, we have learned from observing 129 developers at work, that their most innovative accomplishment come when they are actively fostering a deep curiosity about what they don’t know.

This mindset requires you to cultivate humility.

To embrace the full potential of a what a development can achieve, the team behind it must learn about the unique community and its needs. To do this, they must humbly approach the project, knowing that while they have a deep understanding of development principles, the community has an equally deep expertise in their own needs, wants and history.

Adilia Richemond, a 2019 participating developer from Hannibal Square Community Land Trust stated it best,

Our big takeaway from the Institute is to that we need to let the community guide our process. You being a professional, it’s so easy to come into a community and kind of write a prescription and in a way try to diagnose each place with a generic diagnosis, instead of trying to find out the unique elements of the community.  Now, instead of saying hey you need affordable housing, this is how you are going to get it, I really want to get into the details with that community and find out what it is they really need.”

Want to integrate deep community knowledge into your project for a more equitable development outcome? Download the Enterprise Green Communities Cultural Resilience Assessment and Guide to Convene a Cultural Advisory Group (from Criteria 1.7).

Mastery requires a willingness to pause and to question assumptions. 

At the Institute, which provides a structured space to slow down within the development process, we’ve seen dozens of developers make significant changes to their project for the better when they stop to question why they are doing things and how people will really use the space they are creating.

One developer summed up their recognition of the importance of this mindset in expanding their practice, “the Institute had me pull back a lot and look at it with new eyes. My architect put it one way and I took that for granted… I hadn’t thought about other features, like how to leverage the wetlands on site or how we might add a playground for the families.”

Some of the questions that have come up at Institutes over the years include:

  • Why am I placing the garden here?  Have I thought about whether a garden in the front of people’s houses will be used? Would it be better used if it were behind? 
  • What are the design considerations for a bedroom of a previously un-housed person? If I am serving someone who may have issues trusting others, would they want to entertain family and friends in their small rooms? Might they need different spaces designed for this use? 
  • What special features might young families need? For instance, how might they get their strollers in and out of the building?

 3. Owning the Design Process   

If developers take nothing else away from AHDLI, it is the idea that they can expect more and accomplish more from the design process when they own it and lead it.

This mindset requires you to raise the design bar for yourself.

At the Institute, developers learn first-hand from leading architects that they can get better results if they bring just a little more to the table.

A seasoned architect and member of the AHDLI Design Resource team shared of his best clients,

“They refine and prioritize their project goals before they meet with me as the architect.  We (the architect) can only focus on your priorities if we know what they are.”

Another architect shared in recommending how to prepare for meetings, “Start to think about what the experience is going to be (before you meet with your architect). To design a building that leverages neighborhood assets, and considers site permeability, public/private interface, etc., the architects needs the context.”

Ultimately, this mindset leads to taking the next level of ownership of the design process.

Mastery requires you to hold your architects to higher standards.

At AHDLI we see developers give themselves permission to demand more of the design process.  By engaging side-by-side with architects for three days, developers start to understand that design is not a black box, they don’t have to be afraid to ask questions and they can in fact get a lot better results when they do.

As an AHDLI participant encouraged,

“Ask for whatever you need to be clear about how the building looks or how it will be used, including ground floor use plan, furniture plans for the units, multiple massing studies or concepts.”

Another developer shared that AHDLI helped him to “differentiate what kinds of architects I want to work with.” He went on to share “immediately when we completed the project that we brought to AHDLI, we went after new architects. It really helped me not be bulldozed by my architect to not bring in the (consultants we knew we needed).” 

Want to better leverage your design team? Check out, Ten Ways to Make the Most of Your Design Team. Developed by three Enterprise Rose Fellows to share their on-the-ground experience as architectural designers embedded into community development organizations.

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While we’ve also learned that these mindsets take practice and intention, even small integrations of their underlying principles can support equitable and restorative outcomes for communities. If you would like to dive deeper into these practices by joining a cohort of similarly ambitious developers, apply to participate in the 2021 Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute.

We’d love to hear from you! What mindsets have shaped your best work?  To follow along with the work of the Enterprise Design and Culture & Creativity teams, including updates on the 2021 Institute, join the Design Matters newsletter.

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