November 6, 2019

Big Idea: Let Community Engagement Surprise You

Amit Price Patel

Ten years ago, the Enterprise Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute set out to elevate the status quo in affordable housing design and support the creation of housing that lifts-up individuals and communities. Over a decade, through nearly 70 unique conversations about the challenges and potential of real development projects, across a network of almost 250 developers, designers, policy-makers, public health experts and others, an incredible amount of innovation has happened.

Our goal in the “10 Years, 10 Big Ideas” series is to bring you the best of that innovation, making leading-edge design and development ideas open source and day-lighting the voices of leaders driving forward the state of affordable housing design. 

Browse the Big Ideas Series

Amit Price Patel, Principal at SITELAB urban studio, attended Enterprise’s Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute in 2013. At the Institute, Amit shared the importance of creating high-quality affordable housing developments that are fully embedded in the community. SITELAB urban studio is an urban design practice that believes in the creation of places and processes that can be inhabited, shaped by use, and brought to life for people. 

Carrie Niemy, Program Director, Initiative, Enterprise Community Partners: What do you think is the unique opportunity of affordable housing?  

Amit Price Patel: I view affordable housing projects similarly to how I view civic buildings - they’re an expression of what we care about most in society, which is providing for our most vulnerable, creating a community asset and bringing something beautiful to our city. In the last couple of years, the people and institutions involved in housing production have really raised the bar on what it means to design and build public and affordable housing.

We’re seeing high-quality projects that fit seamlessly into their respective neighborhoods and contribute to the community in exciting new ways. A few of the projects we’ve worked on cannot be distinguished from market rate buildings, which is the goal. With a market rate building, there is often the pressure to reduce costs to maximize short term profits, resulting in lower quality buildings and spaces. With affordable housing, because there isn’t a profit motive and you have a set budget, you can actually get a lot more value for residents and the community out of a building. 
CN: What behaviors do you think successful developers embody that allow them to consistently succeed in their projects?

APP: I think the smartest developers know it’s not just about designing a project and getting it built, it’s about creating a vision and bringing it to life for the people who are going to occupy the space. Before SITELAB urban studio, I worked on a project called the Richardson Apartments in San Francisco for Community Housing Partnership. This was one of my favorite design projects.

The site was on what was formerly an elevated freeway but was demolished due to an earthquake and then was later identified as affordable housing. In terms of the design, its proximity to City Hall allowed us to carefully design the façade to respect and honor that view, and in the end provided 120 units for formerly chronically homeless people, many with physical and mental disabilities.

The project is part of the Housing First idea that it’s much better for residents and less resource-intensive for cities to create a stable place for people to live. It’s not just about the building, it’s about the people who live inside and what kind of environment you need to design for them. Affordable housing is ultimately about making thriving cities. By preserving diversity and by welcoming and integrating newcomers at all income levels, cities can continue to grow and be places for opportunity.

Photo by SITELAB urban studio: An interactive block party community engagement event for a SiteLab project in San Francisco 

CN: Are there any other key elements to then fulfilling on a project vision once it’s created? It’s easy to say something, it can be harder to get it done.

APP: Community engagement is an important part of creating and fulfilling a vision. You don’t just go into a community and say, “Here’s the project!” You engage people early on, and you ask “What do you care about in your neighborhood? What’s important to you? What are the problems and opportunities?”

There is always something that comes out of the process that makes the project better. With Richardson Apartments, for example, we found out that most residents did not want or need additional parking spaces, even though that was the prevailing notion, and we listened. Your vision has to have community buy-in to be effective. We’re  always surprised by how good the feedback is and view it as a resource. Engagement is not just something go you have to go through. 

For developers who don’t want to engage with the community throughout the design process and see it as a waste of time, I’d say, “you’re going to pay for it now or you’ll pay for it later.” 

CN: What do you think is the value of the Design Leadership Institute? 

APP: It’s comforting to realize you are not alone, and to connect with leaders from across the country who are tackling the same problems in different contexts. AHDLI helps your group think about how you are doing the work, instead of just doing it, and you become more confident in your projects as a result.

Photo by SITELAB urban studio: An interactive block party community engagement event for a SiteLab project in San Francisco 

About the Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute

For the past ten years, the Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute (AHDLI) has brought together the leading-edge of development and design practitioners to share best practices and to take on affordable housing’s increasingly complex construction, policy and finance challenges.

In 2018, AHDLI was awarded the AIA’s Collaborative Achievement Award and was named a Hive for Housing Top 5 Innovator. The program’s core tools are now available on Enterprise’s Design Matters site

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