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The 2017 Innovation in Affordable Housing Student Design and Planning Competition: Rutgers University Wins First Place; University of Michigan at Ann Arbor Is the Runner-Up

HUD Acting Deputy Secretary Janet Golrick poses with the winners of the 2017 Innovation in Affordable Housing Student Design and Planning Competition.(Left to right): Community Builders, Inc. Senior Vice President Beverly Bates, Sharone Small, Jane Allen, Christine Winter, Kimberly Tryba, and HUD Acting Deputy Secretary Janet Golrick. Not pictured: Advisor Tony Nelessen and team member Chelsea Moore-Ritchie.

When the four finalist student teams arrived in Cleveland last month to visit one of the oldest public housing developments in the country, they knew that the site chosen for this year’s Innovation in Affordable Housing competition would challenge them to apply their planning skills to a larger context. These four teams—Yale University, Rutgers University, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and a New York University/Columbia University collaborative team—spent the entire day with staff from the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority to discuss much-needed renovations to the site plan for Woodhill Homes. Most of the proposed changes for Woodhill center around improvements to the structure of the buildings and units, indoor air and water quality, and removing barriers to access to Downtown Cleveland’s robust medical industry. The students used what they learned from this visit to refine their proposed plans for a final presentation at this year’s awards ceremony.

The 2017 HUD Innovation in Affordable Housing (IAH) Student Design and Planning Competition Awards Ceremony was held on April 18, 2017, at HUD Headquarters. HUD’s Office of Policy Development and Research kicked off event with a morning seminar featuring practitioners’ perspectives on the development and preservation of affordable housing called “Practical Insights into Affordable Housing.” After lunch, the four finalist teams presented their ideas before a panel of jurors. HUD staff, invited guests, and members of the public attended the event, with many others nationwide viewing the presentations via webcast. Each student team delivered a 20-minute presentation addressing the economic, social and environmental challenges facing Woodhill Homes, leaving10 minutes for the jurors to ask questions.

The four student teams delivered outstanding presentations for the project site, making the jurors’ task of choosing a winner and a runner-up a difficult one. As Head Juror and Senior Vice President of Development at The Community Builders, Beverly Bates, observed: “As someone who has devoted her life to the work of helping to create great new housing communities in which families can thrive, it was truly inspirational for me to experience the wealth of talent and innovation that was represented by the student teams who competed in the IAH. Deciding among them was an incredibly difficult task given the amazing quality of thought, creativity and effort involved in each proposal. I came away from the experience feeling truly optimistic about the future of our practice.”

 The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor team and HUD Acting Deputy Secretary Janet Golrick stand in front of the 2017 Innovation in Affordable Housing background.(Left to right): Community Builders, Inc. Senior Vice President Beverly Bates, Emily Burrowes, Melissa Bloem, Prashanth Raju, Bader Bajaber, Laura Devine, and HUD Acting Deputy Secretary Janet Golrick.

General Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy Development and Research Matthew Ammon delivered a short, encouraging speech and praised the students for their outstanding presentations, encouraging the students to continue to find innovative solutions to affordable housing. Acting Deputy Secretary Janet Golrick, who announced this year’s winners, emphasized the importance of partnership which is necessary for sustained commitment to expanding opportunities for low-income families. She announced the team from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor as the runner-up. Michigan’s plan, called Axis Woodhill, is an $18.9 million, two-phased rehab project with some new construction for a Women’s Wellness Center and a Grocery Co-op that emphasizes the use of low-impact, durable building materials. The project addresses the connectivity challenge by expanding bus routes and improving vehicular circulation. In addition, the students introduced high-quality, sustainable, and low-toxic building materials that reduce operating and maintenance costs and enhance resident health. The jury was particularly impressed with Michigan’s approach to expanding transportation options by including a car-share program and bicycle stations. As the runner-up, the Michigan team received a $10,000 prize. The student advisor, Professor Lan Deng, commends the students and the experience: “The competition has been a great learning opportunity for our students. In coming up with a design solution that is both innovative and financially feasible, our students have learned about the real lessons of affordable housing development."

Rutgers University was selected as the winner and was awarded the grand prize of $20,000. At the center of the proposed plan, Beyond the Threshold: Community Empowerment, Sustainability, and Connectivity at Woodhill Homes, was the team’s approach to the issue of expanding connectivity, specifically for Woodhill Homes’ large population of single female-headed households. The plan consisted of five villages, configured into small two- and three-bedroom townhomes and lofts that are suitable for smaller families. The feature that seemed to impress the judges the most was that the plan departed significantly from the traditional public housing aesthetic. They commended the team for their new and different, yet streamlined approach to site design that is financially feasible and offers practical solutions that the housing authority could implement.

Delighted by the news that his all-women student team was selected as the winner, Faculty Advisor and Professor Anthony Nelessen reflects on this year’s competition: “[The] IAH competition challenged the Rutgers team to consider not only who lives here, how they live in these homes and a method to re-purpose the buildings, yards and the site in a sustainable way to make life more secure, affordable and generate a positive feeling of place for many years to come. Incorporating workshops and gardens teaches new skills, encouraging residents to be a part of the reconstruction. The all ladies Rutgers team brought a new sensitivity to the lives of the many single women with children that live there.”

Following her announcement of the winning teams, Acting Deputy Secretary Janet Golrick also recognized the remaining finalists—Yale University and New York University/Columbia University—congratulating the students’ hard work. She reiterated the importance of a multidisciplinary approach to developing innovative solutions to real-world, affordable housing problems. As we look ahead to the coming year and ideas for a 2018 IAH Student Competition, we are reminded of how important it is to continue these efforts in search for expanding housing opportunities for all.

HUD funded about 15 percent of the total cost of the research, with the remainder from the university and industry partners.

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