UB advances national conversation on affordable housing

Robert Shibley
“We’re building the resource base necessary to make this not a one-year project, but part of the DNA of our school.”
Robert Shibley, Dean, School of Architecture and Planning

Published May 14, 2018

The School of Architecture and Planning recently gathered more than 150 leaders in affordable housing to consider policy, design and building solutions to an issue that has reached crisis proportions in cities across the U.S. 

The UB Affordable Housing Symposium, held on April 10, 2018, in UB's Hayes Hall, also kicked off a new program at the school to design and build affordable housing prototypes for Buffalo and cities like it across the U.S.

Highlighting the broad relationship of affordable housing to the overall wellbeing of communities was the event's keynote speaker, Henry Cisneros, former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under the Clinton administration.

“In an age when we’re talking about inequality in the country as such an important question, the access to decent housing is right at the heart of that inequality dialogue,” said Cisneros, now the founder and chairman of CityView, an investment management and development firm focused on urban residential real estate, with offices in San Antonio, Los Angeles and San Francisco. 

A series of three panels, featuring experts from all levels of government as well as the financial, academic, and design and building industries, addressed the wide-ranging challenges affecting the construction of adequate, accessible, well-designed and cost-effective affordable housing options. Experts noted that while the funding landscape is complex and ever-changing, new investment at the state level is helping communities like Buffalo. Panelists and participants alike noted affordable housing - whether new or renovated - must incorporate higher design standards, from consideration of neighborhood context to the incorporation of accessibility features for communities with aging populations.

Community members participate in the Affordable Housing Symposium at UB in April

More than 150 community leaders and professionals from across the affordable housing industry participated in UB's first Affordable Housing Symposium. Photos by Maryanne Schultz

Henry Cisneros delivers the symposium's keynote address via teleconference

Dean Robert Shibley welcomes the symposium's keynote speaker, Henry Cisneros, former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and now chairman of CityView.

Symposium chair Dennis Penman of Penman Development Partners said the symposium is the start of a community-wide endeavor. “We really started to create a culture…to help our community understand where we have to go and what policies we have to craft to be successful in the affordable housing space.”

Mark Foerster, UB senior fellow in real estate development and organizer of the symposium, said the event was successful in starting a critical conversation across sectors. “One of the key takeaways from the symposium is that innovations in each of design, construction, finance, and public policy will be necessary to make more affordable housing possible, both regionally and across the U.S. Building from the momentum of this event, the School of Architecture and Planning can be a catalyst and a partner with public and private sector stakeholders in building more equitable cities.”

Panelists discuss affordable housing policy at UB's Affordable Housing Symposium

The symposium's panel on the policy landscape in affordable housing included (from left to right): UB urban planning professor Robert Silverman; Brendan Mehaffy, executive director of Buffalo's Office of Strategic Planning; Megan Haberle, director, Housing Policy Poverty & Race Research Action Council, Washington, DC; Jolie Milstein, president and CEO of the NYS Association for Affordable Housing; and UB professor of urban planning Alfred Price (moderator). In the foreground, symposium chair Dennis Penman welcomes guests. 

Indeed, the symposium also served as the official launch of UB's Affordable Housing Initiative, a research program that will bring students in real estate development, architecture and urban planning together with community and professional leaders to plan, design and develop affordable housing prototypes for underserved neighborhoods in Buffalo. Applying innovations in inclusive design, sustainability, and construction techniques, student prototypes will be replicable both for Buffalo and cities like it across the U.S. 

Donald Capoccia

Donald Capoccia, a 1978 UB grad and leading developer of affordable housing in New York City, delivered the symposium's lunchtime keynote address.

Donald Capoccia, managing principal with BFC Partners with nearly 40 years of experience in New York City’s affordable housing market, is the program's lead supporter. The 1978 UB graduate lauded the School of Architecture and Planning for its ground-level engagement of the issue in Buffalo. 

"Buffalo is an extraordinary laboratory," he said during an interview with the school prior to the symposium, where he delivered the lunchtime keynote. "There are so many other cities like this that can benefit from the kind of work that UB is doing in Buffalo." 

Although Buffalo has experienced a resurgence, it has inadequate high-quality housing that is affordable to a significant portion of its population. In addition, like many cities, affordable housing in Buffalo has been heavily dependent on the availability of investments through low-income housing tax credits, the future availability of which is uncertain. 

Dean Robert Shibley spoke to the school's long-term commitment to research and teaching in affordable housing: “We’re building the resource base necessary to make this not a one-year project, but part of the DNA of our school," he said. 

Representing architecture, urban planning and real estate development, more than three dozen students participated in the symposium. Many of their research and design ideas were on exhibit during the event and included an inclusive design prototype model for Habitat for Humanity's community building program (independent research led by architecture professor Edward Steinfeld and Master of Architecture student Alexa Russo); sustainability-focused concepts that are 75 percent permit-ready (small built works studio taught by clinical assistant professor of architecture Brad Wales), and housing design and feasibility studies for the Bailey Green neighborhood on Buffalo's East Side (design-build studio taught by Stephanie Cramer, adjunct professor of architecture).

Students from across the School of Architecture and Planning participated in the symposium.

Students from across the School of Architecture and Planning participated in the symposium, which included an exhibition of student work on affordable housing prototypes.

The program has already presented students with valuable real-world learning experiences. Master of Architecture student Alexa Russo, who has been interested in affordable housing since high school, has developed construction drawings and models of an inclusive design housing concept for Habitat for Humanity Buffalo.

“When you work hard and design a project you put your heart and soul into, it is an amazing feeling to know that this design can become a reality,” says Russo. “I think it is important for other students...to know that not only will their designs be built, but that they are helping humanity at the same time.”

Joy Resor, a Master of Urban Planning student who helped organize the symposium, noted that the symposium addressed the full spectrum of affordable housing issues. "Often, policy may not be as visible a solution to the affordability crisis as, say, construction costs, but powerful policy can have long-lasting effects. Additionally...it's even more important to understand how the buildings will be used, who will live there, and what needs the residents will have."

Resor, who graduated earlier this month with her MUP degree, referred to the symposium and broader initiative as a "call to action" with tangible community impacts. "Grappling with a very real issue like affordability will make students better planners, architects, and developers." 

Moving forward, the school will continue to build meaningful partnerships with public, private and not-for-profit organizations and obtain financial  support for studios, faculty development and recruitment, symposia, scholarships and student travel.  The School intends to raise $250,000 for the 2018-2019 academic year and additional amounts in future years.