Campus & Community

Competing for affordable housing for others:

6 min read

Ambitious KSG group opens up its Affordable Housing Competition to all area college students

Andrew Han, Brendan Miller and Sarah Karlinsky
Kennedy School of Government students and co-coordinators of the Affordable Housing Development Competition, Andrew Han ’01 (left), Brendan Miller ’03, and Sarah Karlinsky ’01. (Staff photo by Rose Lincoln)

It requires only a cursory glance at the classified ads to determine just how exorbitant the cost of living has become in and around Boston.

A “modern” one-bedroom apartment in Cambridge rents for $1,400 a month. A two-bedroom flat in Brighton (“pets OK”) goes for $1,550. A “spacious” two-bedroom in Somerville is on the market for $1,600.

The rents may be manageable for the dotcom yuppies moving in from the suburbs, but for a single woman on minimum wage supporting two children the escalating prices are a painful indication of just how unaffordable much of the Boston area’s housing stock has become in recent years.

In an ambitious effort to address this growing regional dilemma, a group of Harvard graduate students is recruiting participants for the inaugural Affordable Housing Development Competition. Open to all area college students, the competition challenges design teams to produce real-life affordable housing plans from the ground up, with the winners splitting $16,000 in cash prizes.

The competition is co-sponsored by the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston and the Citizen’s Housing and Planning Association (CHAPA) with additional financial support and cooperation provided by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard, the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), the Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University, the College of Citizenship and Public Policy at Tufts University, and the College of Public and Community Service at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

“I believe this is a huge educational opportunity, but that is only part of the motivation for me,” says Brendan Miller KSG ’02, a member of the competition’s organizing committee. “I feel some responsibility, too, as a student. Because we have such a huge student population in the city, we are in competition for many of the housing units in the area.”

With its dual purpose – of providing students with a valuable learning experience while providing the community with specific detailed proposals for alleviating the housing crunch – the Affordable Housing Development Competition is expected to attract interest from a wide range of students from the fields of architecture, design, finance, marketing, public policy, and urban planning at Harvard and other surrounding institutions.

“Because the Boston community is so rich in resources, but because these resources are somewhat compartmentalized … it’s nice to foster this connection between institutions and between people,” says Sarah Karlinsky KSG ’01, also a member of the organizing committee. “The affordable housing crunch isn’t just a Kennedy School crunch, a Harvard crunch, an M.I.T. crunch, but rather it’s a Boston regional crunch, and getting institutions to work together allows us to broaden the perspective.”

Teams consisting of between three and five students from various institutions will begin forming next month following an informational meeting on Feb. 6. Each team will be partnered with either a community development organization or a for-profit developer of affordable housing. The teams will prepare proposals for actual affordable housing projects in local neighborhoods, including everything from the physical design plans to marketing strategies to financing options.

Proposals will be judged in April by a panel of affordable housing practitioners, academics, and other professionals with the winning team receiving a $10,000 first prize ($7,000 for the developer and $3,000 for the students). The second-place team will receive $6,000 (with $4,000 for the developer and $2,000 for the students).

The bulk of the prize money is courtesy of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston, which has provided more than $100 million in housing subsidies in the region during the past 10 years. Bank Senior Vice President for Housing and Community Investment David P. Parish believes the competition will do more than advance the mission of stimulating more affordable housing.

“I think the additional advantage is making the development community more aware of the resource that exists in local-area universities,” he says, “particularly in terms of the talent of the students, while also making students more aware of the housing development community and what they can add to that.”

CHAPA Executive Director Aaron Gornstein is convinced that bringing students to the table now will pay dividends later.

“It’s going to be important to bring young people into the housing field in the future,” he says. “The best way to interest students and excite them about affordable housing is to have them working directly with community organizations in the area to put together real proposals.

“So we are hoping [this competition] will really stimulate interest in the affordable housing field among graduate students and the undergraduate students who will participate, while also providing a resource for the nonprofit organizations that could use the help.”

For Karlinsky, the opportunity to link energetic students with grass-roots neighborhood groups who need the support makes this an extremely worthwhile pursuit.

“I thought that a competition would be a particularly good way of raising consciousness among students about what actually goes into doing affordable housing,” she says. “It’s not just the bricks and mortar of it. It’s the community of it. It’s the financing of it. There are all these different components … and by doing it in such a way as you actually develop ties to the larger Boston community seemed to me to be a really phenomenal opportunity for students in the Boston area.”

Students will compete not only for prize money, according to Karlinsky, but also for the opportunity to see their proposals come to fruition.

“The optimal scenario will be that students learn a lot but also that the developers are actually able to use some of what the students come up with in order to push through a viable project so that what we do is not just an academic exercise but rather of use to someone at some point,” she says.

Academic exercise or not, Gornstein insists the competition is a step in the right direction. “This isn’t going to solve the housing crisis,” he says. “But it is part of an effort that needs to go on. Central to any affordable housing initiative needs to be the bringing together of the public sector – meaning government agencies – with the private sector, including universities. [That] partnership [will enable us] to expand affordable housing in Greater Boston.”

In addition to its participation in the competition, Harvard’s commitment to affordable housing in the region is underscored by its 20/20/2000 initiative which makes available $20 million in low interest loans to help community organizations secure and renovate new affordable housing units in Boston and Cambridge. The University also recently established the Housing Innovation Program, providing $1 million in one-time grants.

For more information on the Affordable Housing Development Competition, log on to the competition Web page:

Contact Doug Gavel at