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2021 Innovation in Affordable Housing Student Design and Planning Competition Site Visit: Fresno Housing Authority, City of Firebaugh, California

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2021 Innovation in Affordable Housing Student Design and Planning Competition Site Visit: Fresno Housing Authority, City of Firebaugh, California

Alaina Stern, Social Science Analyst, Office of Policy Development & Research

A screenshot of students and Fresno Housing Authority staff in a virtual chat.Students from final four teams engaging with HUD, Fresno Housing Authority staff, and project representatives during the virtual site visit.

This year’s Innovation in Affordable Housing (IAH) Student Design and Planning Competition will challenge the four final teams to create innovative housing solutions for residents of Firebaugh, California, a largely agricultural community. The four teams are Columbia University; the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; and two collaborative teams: the University of Michigan with Harvard University and New York University with the Pratt Institute.

HUD is partnering with the Fresno Housing Authority (FHA) to challenge students to draft design proposals that connect Firebaugh’s citizens to the larger Fresno community by expanding the supply of housing and improving the community’s transportation infrastructure. FHA has a robust housing portfolio; it currently owns and or manages nearly 80 multifamily housing developments and 4,200 public housing units throughout Fresno County, and it issues 13,000 housing choice vouchers that assist more than 35,000 families. In addition to these programs, FHA administers numerous resident empowerment services on topics such as health and wellness, education, and wage progression.

An aerial view of the City of Firebaugh.The Fresno Housing Authority currently owns and or manages nearly 80 multifamily housing developments and 4,200 public housing units throughout Fresno County. Screen capture from drone footage courtesy of Fresno Housing Authority.

This year’s competition centers on redeveloping housing units and seizing the opportunity to create a single cohesive community from five contiguous properties. The student teams must redesign more than 210 units of workforce housing for farm laborers, migrant workers, senior citizens, and low-income families who live in Firebaugh. The teams must balance several factors when developing their final plans, including the planning context, local economic conditions, building constraints unique to a rural community, a feasible financing plan, the built environment, and the larger social needs of the community.

The project selected this year involves a site with five properties that are contiguous but currently separated by fencing and other barriers that prevent resident interaction and community living. These barriers not only are physically unappealing but also contribute to the larger disconnectedness of the entire community. The residents who were interviewed indicated that an ideal design plan would remove these barriers, add green space and recreational elements, and improve the infrastructure necessary to support a car-centric, rural community. In addition, Firebaugh, with its near-zero vacancy rate, has a severe housing shortage. Students therefore also are charged with developing a feasible affordable housing plan to include additional units for workers in Firebaugh’s agricultural industry.

Screenshot of Preston Prince, chief executive officer of the Fresno Housing Authority, addressing the students.Fresno Housing Authority’s chief executive officer, Preston Prince, welcomed the students and described the FHA’s mission, vision, and objectives.

Virtual Site Visit to Fresno

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the students were not able to visit the Firebaugh site in person. Instead, on March 11, 2021, staff from HUD’s Office of Policy Development and Research and FHA cohosted a virtual event to help students understand the vision and goals of the project. Students engaged with staff, local officials, site managers, and residents. FHA’s chief executive officer, Preston Prince, welcomed the students and described FHA’s mission, vision, and objectives. Michael Duarte, FHA’s chief real estate officer, provided students with key insights, challenges, and important considerations for their project to address the challenge of connectedness.

Screenshot of Mayor Freddy Valdez.Mayor Freddy Valdez described the characteristics unique to the City of Firebaugh and highlighted its unique history and cultural influences.

The mayor of Firebaugh, Freddy Valdez, was actively engaged with students for both days of the virtual site visit. Mayor Valdez described the characteristics unique to Firebaugh and highlighted the city’s unique history and cultural influences. He reviewed the city’s design guidelines, pointed out important considerations for rural communities, and touched on Fresno’s key development and zoning ordinances. The mayor described Firebaugh as a small, rural, working-class town based on agriculture whose residents want to build more “walking and biking connections” and look forward to their community’s “transformation.”

Officials spoke of the city’s unique challenges related to density and the lack of resources necessary to increase the supply of affordable units. For example, although the town has no minimum or maximum design standards or requirements that would prohibit higher-density projects, the stumbling block, according to Fire Chief John Borboa, is that Firebaugh does not own a fire truck with a ladder, which makes constructing a building higher than two stories difficult. Students would need to address this challenge through their design proposals.

The students also heard from several key community stakeholders to further understand the city and its residents. Craig Knight, a local real estate expert, provided students with insights on local architectural characteristics and further explored current rental and affordable housing shortages. Bethany Matos, a representative of West Hills College, presented on the educational opportunities and social equity challenges in Firebaugh. Mathos spoke about the important work and community programs offered through the the college’s education center, which is family focused, open to the public, and includes a computer lab with internet. Nathan Cardella, a local winemaker and vineyard owner, and Jarred Williamson from the Tomatek Tomatoes processing facility offered important perspectives on economic access, workforce development, job insecurity, and the implications of technological advances in the agricultural industry.

Students also engaged with Dr. Marcia Sablan, who described the healthcare challenges that the Firebaugh community faces, including a lack of health clinics open after 5:00 pm, very low physician-to-patient ratios, pesticide exposure among residents, and high deductible health insurance plans or no medical insurance at all for undocumented individuals. Dr. Sablan expressed Firebaugh’s desire for a clinic focused on wellness, chronic diseases, and community health, challenging the student teams incorporate “ways to integrate health and healthy foods with everyday living in Fresno housing” into final plans.

2021 Innovation in Affordable Housing Student Design and Planning Competition: Presentations and Awards Ceremony

Now that the four finalist teams have learned more about the project site, they will revise their plans and respond to the competition’s requirement to address the project’s environmental, financial, and social criteria. The teams will present their revised proposals during a virtual event on Wednesday, April 14, 2021. Immediately following the student presentations, a jury of housing industry professionals will deliberate and decide on this year’s winning and runner-up teams.

The 2021 Final Presentations and Awards Ceremony will take place virtually on April 14, 2021 1:00-5:00 pm EST. All who wish to attend the IAH Student Design and Planning Competition must register. Register today at:

To learn more about this year’s IAH Student Design and Planning Competition, please visit
Published Date: 5 April 2021

The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.