President's Viewpoint -

Density, Subsidy and Affordable Housing

Originally published in the 2006 newsletter of the American Institute of Architects, Westchester Mid-Hudson Chapter.

by Michael Shilale, AIA, LEED - July/August, 2006

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Architects are known for their ability to plan well. It was probably not good planning to serve as president of two organizations at the same time. In addition to being President of AIA Westchester-Mid-Hudson this year, I have also been serving as President of Rockland Housing Action Coalition (RHAC).

RHAC is the premier affordable housing organization in Rockland County. Over the last five years it has constructed over 20 single-family homes, 100 condominiums and well over 200 rental apartments for working families, first time homebuyers, and senior citizens.

Even with our successes, there is still a great need for affordable housing in Rockland County, and I am sure most of the other six counties in our chapter area. Our communities are confronted with an inability to maintain an all volunteer ambulance and fire-fighting force. The inability of young individuals and families to find adequate rental and for-sale housing has contributed to this problem. The lack of affordable housing in our area contributes to other problems as well.

Traffic congestion is a complaint in all of our chapter communities and throughout the nation. Eastern Long Island speaks of a “trade parade;” a daily influx of workers and trades people serving communities at the Eastern end of Long Island. This daily migration snarls local traffic and leads to poor air quality. Many communities in our area have seen similar significant development in recent years with the associated congestion and air quality problems. Many would argue that the suburban sprawl of our chapter area is a major contributor to traffic congestion, lack of affordable housing, poor air quality and other problems such as flooding, drought, and skyrocketing property taxes.

While architects address all of these problems in the work we do every day, the solutions are beyond our individual sphere of influence. Our role as architects should be to educate, inform, collaborate and advocate for better planning and more livable, sustainable, safe and beautiful communities.

Many of our issues are complex, but some can be addressed with simple solutions. Experts have reduced to rhyme the solution to affordable housing – Density or Subsidy. The high cost of land and construction dictate the market cost of housing. Without increases in density or subsidy or a combination of the two affordable housing will be out of reach for many of our residents and children. Density has had a negative connotation in many of our communities, but is now talked about as a solution to open space preservation. This dialogue needs to continue. Our successes at RHAC are usually the result of a combination of density and subsidy as well as a broad coalition of public and private partners.

We need architects to do more for their communities. Our chapter is sponsoring two projects that will help us celebrate the 150th anniversary of AIA in 2007. AIA National is encouraging architects to partner in the Blue Print for America initiative a national community service endeavor. You can learn more about AIA 150 at the national website

For my part, serving on five boards and being president of two would seem like too much. Somehow I still have found time to manage my ten-year old daughter’s softball team to first place and coach my 16 and 14 year old’s baseball teams. My three children, (all “all-stars” this year), and my wife are looking forward to my being a past president of both AIA and RHAC. In January 2007, it will be easier to tell my wife which nights I am out each week rather than which nights I am home.