We should see affordable housing as an opportunity for architecture

Affordable housing is more talked about than actually accomplished in Wellfleet. With under two percent of our housing stock affordable, we lag far behind most towns on the Cape in meeting the state mandated ten percent.

The possibility of making a big improvement in this situation was the subject of a Community Forum on a recent January evening. A unanimous vote at last April’s town meeting authorized a task force to prepare a Request for Proposals for a developer to construct affordable rentals on up to 6 acres of land across from the Elementary School. The up to 46 one-to-three bedroom rentals suggested for this site would be a large step toward preventing our town from turning into an exclusively retirement and tourist community. The Forum was an invitation to residents to help envision such a development. The atmosphere in the large room was enthusiastic. If there were opponents of affordable housing they didn’t speak up.

One obvious concern about this development is how it will look. The task force is considering putting in the RFP a stipulation that the developer be limited to “ architecture and design compatible with the area and Wellfleet vernacular architecture, both traditional and modern.” The problem is that this could easily be translated by a developer as default, cliché housing whose greatest virtue will be that it will blend in.

It would be good to see this part of the RFP bolstered with a more creative vision.

One got the impression that despite the use of the word, architecture was in fact not high on the list of desiderata. But it ought to be. Affordable housing carries a stigma of the affordability showing through in the design as perfunctory, cheap, cliched, the sort of look that can give affordable housing the reputation of dragging down the market value of a neighborhood.

What a morale boost for those who end up living in it, as well as neighbors and the rest of the town, would be architecture of genuine interest: ffordable architecture rather than “housing.”

The objection will be: but won’t that add to the price? Doesn’t architecture mean expensive fees and design without regard for economy? Not necessarily. Architecture can be creatively employed to save money in construction and maintenance costs. A recent coffee-table book, “Cape Cod Modern: Mid-century Architecture and Community on the Outer Cape,” features architectural gems dotting our woods and pondsides. These houses of the modernist movement were conceived of as modest, affordable shelter. Their designers thought that was more interesting than figuring out how to spend a rich client’s money. There’s nary a trophy house in the bunch.

With this celebrated heritage in mind, how about breaking down that false dichotomy between the architected and the affordable? How about conceiving of the development under discussion as an architectural opportunity?

According to Elaine McIlroy, chair of the town’s housing authority, “You cannot prescribe the exact design when you put out an RFP.” You must “ give the developer the freedom to come up with the best possible design.” We have reason to doubt that developers will use that freedom to come up with that result. Why can’t we hold them to our own standards and vision?

How about sponsoring a design contest for this affordable project, with affordability clearly stipulated in contest rules, and then writing the winning design into the RFP?

Architecture doesn’t come only from architects. Some of the designers of our celebrated modernist houses were not credentialled architects, but that interesting hybrid, designer/ builders. There are a number of local designer / builders operating on the Cape right now who could be actively challenged by the whole notion of designing a multi-unit development for economy, employing money-saving passive solar design and construction and other cutting edge technologies.

In this town which has a celebrated architectural past, can we do less than keep architecture alive in the present?

Affordable architecture is not an oxymoron.

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