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Local Housing Competition

Originally published in Banker & Tradesman on January 15, 2001. Reprinted with permission.

By Michelle Forcier Anderson

Developing affordable housing in the Boston area has become an increasingly urgent problem for planners, and one that often builds only frustration.

Recently, the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston, along with the Citizens' Housing and Planning Association, invited the city's best and brightest students to address the problem through a semester-long competition.

The Affordable Housing Development Competition will begin just after the new semester begins for Boston-area colleges and universities. Each team — with a maximum of 10 students — must partner with an area developer to create a proposal. The proposal must contain many elements critical to a real-life development plan, including the goals of the development and the residents to be served. A community outreach plan, the setting and design of the buildings in the development, and a financing plan as well as a timeline for completion also must be considered.

"The primary objective is to help the students and encourage them to look at the different solutions as far as developing affordable housing, the challenges they will face as they graduate and get into this field. Also, to allow the various developers to interact with the students and to see them as a resource and to work together," said Chris Norris, assistant director at CHAPA.

The project was first proposed by Andrew Han, a 29-year-old student working toward a master's degree in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He also holds a master's in city planning from the University of California at Berkeley.

The competition is based on the Bank of America Housing Challenge in the San Francisco Bay area, said Han. "The idea and concept left a strong impression on me, which I brought with me to Harvard," said Han, who didn't compete in California.

Han, along with Sarah Karlinsky, Tami Chaung, Whitney Rearick and Yu-Ning Hwang, representing Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Tufts University, prepared a proposal asking for support from the FHLB and CHAPA.

"The timing couldn't be better for a competition of this type, given the level of public concern about the affordable housing shortage in the Boston area. I am not just referring to deeply subsidized housing for very low-income households, but also housing that is affordable to working-class families, such as teachers, firefighters and police officers," he said.

"It's been relatively intensive," said David Parish, senior vice president of housing and community investment at FHLB. "The students have done a great job and they've taken a lot of the responsibility."

Parish said FHLB hopes for three outcomes from the competition; one is to bring more visibility to the affordable housing issue. Increasing the student's exposure to and understanding of what goes into planning an affordable housing development is another anticipated outcome, as well as exposing developers to the resources universities have at their disposal and to view students as potential employees, he said.

According to Han, the competition is intended to increase student interest in the development of affordable housing and perhaps spur consideration of a career in the field.

"Moreover, to the extent that the development proposals submitted by student teams bring fresh perspectives that are politically and economically viable, the competition will be a potential response to the affordable housing challenges," said Han.

About 15 students from Harvard, MIT, Boston University, the University of Massachusetts and Tufts have already expressed interest in the program. "The response from students has been positive and promising," said Han.

The contest is not solely extra-curricular, however, students will have a chance to apply what they've learned during class.

"The competition will coincide with the affordable housing development, finance and management course taught by professor Edward Marchant at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. In addition, we are planning a colloquium on topics related to affordable housing development for participating students who are unable to take [the] class. Each student team is required to have a faculty advisor, which will provide additional resources," said Han.

While the goal of the project doesn't include following the proposals through to fruition, that outcome has not been ruled out.

"My expectation would be that at least pieces of these projects would ultimately be included in a development," said Norris.

"It's not a requirement obviously but it's certainly possible," said Parish.

Han said he doesn't expect the proposals to be implemented in the near future. "One way to look at it is to say that the development proposals should be 'real world' enough to convince a lending institution [to fund] a predevelopment loan. In the San Francisco competition, actual developments occurred as a result of the competition while the ultimate development scope changed several times as in any development process," said Han.

The FHLB has long been a source for its member banks of money for community development projects. This year, FHLB has earmarked $15 million for affordable housing initiatives and views the competition as another avenue to encourage affordable housing development.

"We hope that it [the competition] can become an ongoing tradition in the Boston area. Boston is unusually blessed with these resources and talents, and it is something that could be valuable going forward," said Parish.