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A section of the Goldstein's housing exhibit.

Specially crafted, house-shaped panels at the Goldstein Museum's current illustrate a host of housing development successes, including low-income dwellings that incorporate energy-efficient technology or Feng Shui elements.

Good-looking and affordable

New exhibit at Goldstein Museum shows that good design is possible in low-cost housing

By Pauline Oo

June 15, 2007

If you think low-cost or affordable housing is ugly and poorly built, and such a development is crawling with unsavory characters, then you're in for a surprise at the current twofer exhibit at the Goldstein Museum of Design.

"Affordable Housing: Designing an American Asset" and "Leading from Policy to Practice: Minnesota Affordable Housing," which runs through July 1, provides a peek at some eye-catching, innovative homes in the United States for low and moderate incomes. You could breeze through the exhibits in a pinch--gazing just at beautiful photos--or you could spend a whole hour or more if you also read all the accompanying information, which includes a timeline (late 19th century to present) of housing-related concerns and policies in the United States.

The U.S. government defines affordable or subsidized housing as housing for which the owner or tenant pays 30 per cent or less of his or her income. Based on this standard, the National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that nearly 95 million Americans--35 per cent of U.S. households--have a housing affordability problem. And when families cannot secure housing that's in their reach, they face an uphill battle to get out of poverty and even risk becoming homeless. For cities that cannot add new affordable housing where new jobs are created, traffic congestion and air pollution increase.

"Designing an American Asset" is on loan from the National Building Museum in Washington D.C.--the Goldstein is one of the last venues on its national tour--while "Leading from Policy to Practice" is homegrown. Curator Marilyn Bruin, an associate professor of housing studies at the University of Minnesota, says the Minnesota-specific exhibit is an opportunity "to reflect on our accomplishments." For decades now, Minnesota has been the birthplace of innovation in affordable housing.

Did you know?

1908--Sears, Roebuck & Co. publishes its first Book of Modern homes and Building Plans. Mail-order models start at $650, including plans, specifications, and materials.

1937--President Franklin D. Roosevelt notes in his second inaugural address, "I see one-third of a nation ill housed, ill clad, and ill nourished."

1959--The first public housing project designed specially for the elderly, Victoria Plaza, is built in San Antonio, Texas.

1986--Congress enacts the low-income housing tax credit program, now the main mechanism for producing affordable housing.

Source: National Building Museum

"'Leading from Policy to Practice'" also inspires us to continue to address the needs of individuals and families with housing issues, and to design and build housing that provides stable, healthy homes with access to jobs, transportation, and services," says Bruin.

In Minnesota, more than one in three renters and one in six homeowners pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing, leaving little for expenses like food, clothing, health care, transportation, and emergencies. And the lack of affordable housing in Minnesota is a crisis that doesn't seem to be abating. By 2010, an additional 33,000 families statewide (22,000 in the metro area) will struggle to find affordable housing, reports a study funded by the Family Housing Fund, the Greater Minnesota Housing Fund, and the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency.

"I think we recognize that it does take a village to house people," says Becky Yust, professor of housing studies and head of the U's Department of Design, Housing, and Apparel. "This is not a situation of an individual being able to go out and get a job and buy housing. The working class does not earn enough money to pay for housing that doesn't take more than 30 percent of one's income. The cost of housing is rising faster than wages and the inflation rate."

Since 2000 prices of homes have risen four times faster than incomes, and rents have climbed three times faster. According to the exhibit, in-migration from neighboring Midwestern states and regulations to ensure quality housing are among the reasons housing cost exceeds ability to pay.

One way to develop effective affordable housing, says exhibit curator Bruin, is for government and community leaders, private industry, and charitable organizations to work together. One successful Minnesota collaboration--highlighted among the eight hanging on Goldstein's ochre walls--took place in St. Peter, where a tornado that struck the area in 1998 left many without homes.

Let's talk about affordable housing

The U's College of Design will hold "Minnesota Affordable Housing Symposium: Celebrating, Designing, Innovating for the Future" Tuesday, June 19, and Wednesday, June 20, from 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on the Twin Cities campus in St. Paul.

Panelists will review the individuals, organizations, policies, and programs that have brought Minnesota to the forefront of affordable housing, and symposium participants will have the chance--in small group discussions--to brainstorm design solutions to the affordable housing crisis. Those solutions will be shared in the symposium's closing session.

The cost is $150. (The keynote address will be held at 6:30 p.m. June 19 and is free and open to the public.) To register or learn more, visit the College of Design.

Partners in the project included the architects, the school superintendent, bankers, business people, the city government, and other agencies such as the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership, the Greater Minnesota Housing Fund, and the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency. Together, they created homes that not only used an architectural style similar to that found in the old town of St. Peter, they developed a neighborhood that's now popular with families.

"The two exhibitions complement each other so well," says Lin Nelson-Mayson, Goldstein Museum director. "The National Building Museum's exhibition will provide a historical context and explore how projects from around the country serve their different communities. It's a nice backdrop to zero in on the topic in our own state. We'll see the national overview with an in-depth look at Minnesota."

The Goldstein Museum of Design is located in 241 McNeal Hall on the Twin Cities campus in St. Paul.

Further reading Goldstein turns 30