Equity by Design: Rebuilding Housing and Communities Post-COVID-19

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Equity by Design: Rebuilding Housing and Communities Post-COVID-19

By Stephanie Firestone

COVID-19 has caused decision-makers and professionals in the built-environment sectors to rethink how we design and create everything from housing, to retail and commercial buildings, to transportation and infrastructure, to effective open spaces and communities. AARP’s Equity by Design global dialogue series, which continues with monthly sessions through February 2021, has generated solutions-oriented conversations among a few thousand built environment professionals from around the world. Based on an age-friendly framework that tackles disparities, the dialogue series is intended to lift up critical lessons and opportunities as we emerge from a tragic pandemic, and to catalyze action among professionals in the fields that shape the physical housing and communities where we live.

The COVID-19 Accelerator

The pandemic has exposed how policies and practices that physically segregate people in the U.S. by age, race, or ethnicity, and the frequent disinvestment in the places where they live, have led to significant disparities in health and longevity. “Many of the comorbidities that COVID preys upon are tied to built-environment features,” said Mariela Alfonzo, who is founder and CEO of urban design data analytics company State of Place and was among an array of expert guests for the first two Equity by Design dialogues.  She indicated that “many of those features that would promote healthier behaviors and health outcomes are often missing from vulnerable communities.” Beyond safe housing, such features might include safe streets, well-maintained sidewalks, well-placed benches, good lighting, healthy food options, and parks or other walkable destinations and opportunities for people to form social bonds—with the additional necessity to physically distance. In order to alleviate some of these disparities, we must prioritize improving the physical environment in disproportionately impacted communities.

The pandemic has also caused a disproportionate number of coronavirus fatalities in long-term-care facilities. While this is alarming on its own, it also has illuminated another reality: We do not currently have a good alternative to such facilities, and consumers lack options.  The design of housing and communities across the country is ill-suited for the rapidly increasing share of an older population that (as AARP research repeatedly shows) wants to age in their homes and communities. Henry Cisneros, the former Secretary of US Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and former mayor of San Antonio, shared how during many public meetings, “Someone in the audience, when they got up to speak, was crying from the frustration they had helping their aging parents contend with the built environment.”

Reimagining Homes, Rethinking Zoning

The current need for most of us to function almost entirely at home has driven professionals in built-environment fields to rethink the ways we use spaces. “Housing is now health care; housing is now education,” pointed out Paul Williams, president and CEO of Project for Pride in Living.  Housing is now also an economic issue. Counties are leasing hotels that have gone underutilized during the pandemic’s economic slowdown and using them to house homeless residents—which is proving effective. “We've known all along,” Williams said, “if you get people safe, stable housing, they in fact will start to solve their own problems.”

The flexibility needed in our built environments applies to both retrofitting existing, and building new, housing stock. Environmental gerontologist Esther Greenhouse pointed out that our current housing was designed based on the needs of the average-height male between the ages of 20-40—leaving the rest of us to adapt. One solution proposed by Cisneros for making current housing stock more enabling for people of all ages and abilities is to use the existing Community Development Block Grant program at HUD, a strategy previously employed to promote energy efficiency through weatherization. “Let's create the lifespan home, with assistance to people particularly who are poor, in retrofitting homes,” he said.

In addition to retrofitting homes to work well across the lifespan, we must also create appropriate and affordable new housing options. Local zoning, which Streetwyze Cofounder Antwi Akom referred to as the “DNA of the built environment,” is a major contributor to the problem. Yet zoning codes and regulations can also be a critical part of the solution. Through changes such as eliminating minimum lot size requirements, increasing density caps, and allowing manufactured housing, local zoning has the power to transform communities. “Cities across the US have kept manufactured housing out; it's a polite way of discriminating,” said Stacey Epperson, president and founder of Next Step, which has worked with numerous manufacturers to incorporate age-friendly features into their housing models. Finally, private housing developers must also be ready to make the shift to affordable lifespan homes. Cisneros was surprised, given the scale of the aging population, “that more in the building community have not embraced this shift, because it's so clear what is needed.”

Rebuilding Around People

In discussing how to help guide post-pandemic rebuilding, Williams pointed out that past efforts to redevelop crime-ridden neighborhoods have often missed the mark. While crime went down and property values went up as a result of efforts in Minneapolis, disparities continued and even increased. Indeed, Williams “realized we’d done a great job on the bricks and mortar and places have prospered—but people have not.”

Helping people prosper by fostering empowerment and self-determination among our most vulnerable populations is at the heart of Akom’s work. “We must bring everyday people from the margins to the epicenter of participatory planning processes,” he suggested. “The people closest to the problem are the people closest to the solution.”

Doing this demands two important undertakings—capacity-building and democratizing data. Teaching members of the local community the language of design enables them to “contribute their unique expertise in a meaningful way and really step up as community leaders,” said urban designer and strategist Ifeoma Ebo. Similarly, it is important to incentivize the utilization of local tradespeople and small businesses, including engineers, designers, and developers, and to invest in enhancing their capacity where needed.

The second necessary undertaking is investing in platforms that facilitate the generation of data directly from community members and ensuring that these community-derived data help drive local decision-making. Akom refers to this as “culturally community-responsive technology.” This allows the “design of places to be shaped by people to fit the behaviors that they want,” Alfonzo said. Dr. Bill Thomas, a gerontologist and social entrepreneur in the senior housing space who moderates the Equity by Design dialogues, pointed out that soliciting and using community-derived data is a great way for the community to drive demand for the enabling and safe housing and community spaces that they want.  “Community members should also define what success looks like and how it is measured,” says Ebo. She sees this community-driven planning approach as part of a shift from the current digital era’s focus on smart cities—or using technology for efficiency, “toward a more thoughtful city.”

Perhaps this is a key lesson as we embark upon post-COVID-19 rebuilding. Let’s strive for Ebo’s thoughtful city, where, as she says, “communities and residents are engaged meaningfully and are being integrated into both the process and product, the operations and maintenance of spaces—in order to achieve a more equitable outcome.”

You can watch recordings of these dialogues and register for upcoming sessions on our website.

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