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Can Architects End the Foreclosure Crisis?

August 23, 2012
by Lawrence Gulotta

It is commonly understood today that the suburbs, home to half of Americans and facing astronomical mortgage foreclosure rates for single-family homes, are in deep financial trouble. Saskia Sassen, professor of sociology at Columbia University, has pointed to a potential mass “expulsion of homeowners” and a “marginalization of modest people” taking place around the country. She and her associates have estimated that possibly 15,000,000 mortgages can be described as “toxic assets.” From 2006 to 2010, she notes, 14.2 million mortgages were in some stage of foreclosure action. She estimates the potential total number of people who have been affected by foreclosure to be 30 million nationwide. Some of these people, she argues, move into poorer housing and multi-family rental developments; some are simply lost track of by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Many of today’s suburbs suffer from boarded windows and depreciated landscaping, underused parking lots next to clogged turnpikes, and dangerously over-occupied single-family homes. The stereotyped urban environment of violence, poverty, illegal immigrants, vacant and vandalized homes, and racial turmoil has shifted to the outer rings of the city.

A recently closed Museum of Modern Art show, Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream, addressed this crisis, arguing that the American Dream must be reinvented wholesale for the twenty-first century. “Change the Dream” reads a sign at the entrance of the show, “and you change the city.” The exhibit’s program describes the story behind Foreclosed:

During summer 2011, five interdisciplinary teams of architects, urban planners, ecologists, engineers, and landscape designers worked in public workshops at MoMA PS1 to envision new housing and transportation infrastructures that could catalyze urban transformation, particularly in the country’s suburbs. Responding to The Buell Hypothesis, a research report prepared by the Buell Center at Columbia University, teams—lead [sic] by MOS, Visible Weather, Studio Gang, WORKac, and Zago Architecture—focused on a specific location within one of five “megaregions” across the country to come up with inventive solutions for the future of American suburbs. This installation presents the proposals developed during the architects-in-residence program, including a wide array of models, renderings, animations, and analytical materials.

The proposed projects blur the traditional lines that separate public space from private space, owning from sharing, residential structures from business structures, and suburbs from cities. They challenge entrenched suburban rules: the segregation of residential, commercial, and industrial facilities; prohibitions on expanding and reusing buildings for new homes and businesses; tight restrictions on mixed-use properties; and traditional definitions of family.

The automobile comes in for strong criticism in the proposals, especially in the plan for the Oranges in New Jersey, which calls for eliminating many traditional streets near a rail station and replacing them “with three-story structures with a mixture of commercial, office, and residential spaces, including a variety of live-work spaces.” In this sense, Foreclosed runs parallel to the proclaimed goals of Paul and Percival Goodman in the introduction to their 1947 book Communitas: “We will criticize not only the foolish shape and power of cars but cars themselves, and not merely the cars but the factories where they are made, the highways on which they run, and the plan of livelihood that makes them necessary.”

The exhibition also introduces a new housing type: the “multi-generational and multi-household house,” which can accommodate so-called “boomerang children.” These “homes within a home” have separate entrances but are connected inside. They would be allowed in areas restricted to single-family homes, requiring zoning changes in areas that limit the number of bedrooms and baths.

All five teams pushed for a mix of residential and business development, or “mixed-use.” Often found in urban centers, “mixed-use” is gaining acceptance in the suburbs. Indeed, the projects challenge the idea that “suburbs” and “cities” are fundamentally different creatures. All advocate for variability in types and terms of ownership, including democratic housing, commonly known as “limited equity cooperatives,” rental options, and shared spaces for “live-work” (popularized by the international loft movement) and play readily available.
Foreclosed’s radical urbanism is made possible by a system of portable mortgages, where ownership is not tied to a particular space. The team leaders describe it as “a kind of micro-governmental cooperative structure, where the local residents participate directly in determining the qualities of their neighborhood.” They aspire to start a discussion about “how to change not only the physical architecture, but the financial architecture of how things get built,” said Barry Bergdoll, exhibition curator. Taken together, the projects would seem to suggest that the American suburbs should look a lot more like the Low Countries in Europe: denser, less dependent on the car, more flexible in physical space and types of ownership, and more environmentally friendly.

The foreclosure crisis could lead to major changes in suburban development, but critics have argued that new patterns of suburban development are less likely to be brought about by a revised American Dream than by economic and demographic factors, especially given the legal barriers to the sorts of projects proposed by Foreclosed. It would be very difficult to change zoning laws to permit denser development patterns, especially in the “inner-ring” suburbs. New housing types are prohibited under many existing zoning codes. Furthermore, we should recall the Goodmans’ cautionary note in Communitas regarding zoning laws and town planning:

But apart from business interests and vested rights, common people are rightly very conservative about changes in the land, for they are very powerfully affected by such changes in very many habits and sentiments. Any community plan involves a formidable choice and fixing of living standards and attitudes, of schedule, of personal and cultural tone. Generally people move in the existing plan unconsciously as if it were nature (and will continue to do so, until suddenly the automobiles don’t move at all).

Can architects using design, advanced computer tools, and philosophy help reverse decades of community disinvestment and the financial industry’s assault? Obviously, they can’t solve the foreclosure problem per se—that’s the responsibility of the banking system, regulators, and government. And the exhibition itself has been criticized as “condescending visions imposed on the suburbs by urban-dwelling architectural elites.” It does not emphasize community involvement in the planning and design process, and the town fathers of the Oranges rejected the team’s proposal outright.

The suburbanites will defend their suburban way of life. The massive changes necessary to undo the foreclosure crisis, both physically and economically, may be beyond the reach of this generation. Communitas suggests a valuable path out of this cul-de-sac:

The best defense against planning—and people do need a defense against planners—is to become informed about the plan that is indeed existent and operating in our lives, and to learn to take the initiative in proposing and supporting reasoned changes. Such action is not only a defense but good in itself, for to make positive decisions for one’s community, rather than being regimented by other’s decisions, is one of the noble acts of man.

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