October 22, 2019

Big Idea: Rethink the "Mix" in Mixed-Use

Kyle Rawlins

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

Kyle Rawlins is co-founder and director of real estate development at Designing Justice + Designing Spaces (DJDS), an Oakland-based non-profit working to end mass incarceration by building infrastructure that addresses its root causes. He attended AHDLI in 2018 and reflected on the importance of mixed-use sites that prioritize restorative and justice-informed development models. 

Carrie Niemy, Program Director, Initiative, Enterprise Community Partners: What was your big takeaway from attending AHDLI? 

Kyle Rawlins: In the design and development of affordable housing, we’re used to using a subtractive process: we start with an idealized vision and reduce it to fit into budgetary constraints. Through participating in the 2018 ADHLI, we were affirmed in our belief that affordability is only the floor, rather than the ceiling, of creativity that can be brought to housing. Mixed-use development strategies, in particular, hold many possibilities to expand traditional models of affordable housing.

Photo by Harry Connolly: Storefront at the Marion West development, home to University District Foodbank and the Street Bean barista training cafe for homeless youth

CN: Where do you see openings for innovation in the affordable housing industry?

As the need for affordable housing increases and the occupancy rate of ground floor retail spaces decreases, a widening opportunity emerges for rethinking street-level spaces in mixed-use affordable housing developments. It’s important to integrate these spaces into the programmatic, architectural and financial project design.

Last year, the National Low Income Housing Coalition reported that in no state, metropolitan area or county can a worker earning the federal minimum wage or prevailing state minimum wage afford a decent two-bedroom rental home at fair market rent by working a standard 40-hour week. At the same time, Ten-X reported this spring that retail vacancy rates have not returned to pre-recession levels and will remain stubbornly high at +10% through the medium term.

While these conditions may have set up a challenging context for affordable housing developers pursuing balanced pro formas, they also represent an opportunity to advance new or underutilized development models. At DJDS, we call one of these models “program and place.” We engage communities in the design and development of new buildings, spaces and tools that integrate restorative justice and restorative economics. In a values-driven approach, we are attacking the root causes of mass incarceration.

On the first day of AHDLI, we toured The Marion West in Seattle’s University District, an excellent example of a mixed-use permanent supportive housing development. The project brings multiple community benefits: food security from the Food Bank tenant, barista job training through the Street Bean café tenant, affordable housing for the University District and services to reduce homelessness among Seattle’s young adults. This is an example of how one development, through a thoughtful approach to its retail and residential components, can start to not only provide housing, but can actually start to build up and restore a community. 

CN: What would you consider the best way to build on the AHDLI model in the industry, and foster more innovation through collaboration? 

KR: ADHLI’s sponsorship of a mixed-discipline conversation of design and development professionals to advance affordable housing is exactly what is needed. In affordable housing forums, it is important to remember to include a broad range of stakeholders, from designers to underwriters charged with reviewing pro formas and evaluating risk, and planning officials who may need to take a chance on some of these new land use proposals.  Only through conversation together can we cut through the complexity of development to create new models that lift up communities and individuals. 

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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