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A Case for More Affordable, Sustainable Housing

September 11th, 2014 by

When I was 27, I bought a house for $14,000 in West Baltimore. My neighbors were mostly the working poor, descendants of families who had moved to Baltimore from West Virginia during and after the Second World War. It was the first house I owned.

For those of my neighbors who were homeowners, it was their first and only house. I had the support system (primarily my family and friends) to invest in and improve my house. My neighbors worked hard but had little additional cash or opportunity.

Nonetheless, it was a close knit community in which many people on the block were related, and neighbors watched out for each other. Though just a 20-minute walk to downtown, many of my neighbors had never been to the Inner Harbor and lived fairly disconnected from the city at large. The neighborhood was, for the most part, the extent of their community.

roof view_magda

As the neighborhood evolved and older residents died off or people moved out to the suburbs in search of better educational opportunities for their children, the community started to fray. Some houses in the neighborhood were owned by absentee landlords who neglected basic maintenance. Tenants moved in who were not related and felt no responsibility toward their block. The physical and social fabric of the area started to disintegrate.

I had choices and moved on to a bigger house in another part of the city, but for those who had no other options, the lack of financial and community resources compromised the only financial investment they had.

What is affordable housing?
The topic of affordable housing is surprisingly fraught with bias. Recently, I chatted with an acquaintance about some of the wonderful affordable projects we’re working on at Marks, Thomas Architects, and the response was that such projects don’t work because “they concentrate the bad elements of society.” But what really is affordable housing? In Howard County, where the median home price is $452,800, affordable housing is a place for teachers and firemen to live.

We had the opportunity to design The Glens at Guilford, an affordable community in Howard County. The energy efficient houses incorporate the principles of universal design to ensure that they are flexible and designed to meet the needs of residents of all ages and physical abilities.


The home owners pay their own utilities, so the near net zero design enhances their ability to keep the basic cost of shelter under control.

Since the collapse of the housing market, many more people are renting, causing a surge in rental property costs. Thirty-five percent of Americans spend 50 percent of their income on housing — good for the landlords but not so good for renters. Increasingly, people we define as middle class cannot afford rent and need a safe place to live.

In Maryland, affordable housing is defined as 60 percent of a median income, which translates to $54,000 per year, or three times minimum wage. Creating mixed-income, affordable rental housing of opportunity is a key part of stabilizing our state’s communities. Take, for example, Burgess Mill in Ellicott City.

burgess mill

Here, we created a highly sustainable, affordable 250-unit housing community with options across a variety of price ranges. Sidewalks invite neighborly interactions, and green spaces encourage socializing and recreation.

Likewise, in Baltimore, we’re currently part of the redevelopment team for the Barclay/Midway/Old Goucher neighborhood with Telesis Corporation. This multi-year project involves a mix of for sale and rental housing in a neighborhood with a strong existing community, but also plenty of poorly managed subsidized units and rentals with absentee landlords. We’ve designed energy star rated houses, and Telesis and their partners have spearheaded the addition of a community building and education opportunities to ensure that residents have the support they need to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Our cultural tendency has been to move on when the social and physical materials of our community deteriorate, but this is no longer environmentally sustainable and certainly not socially viable. Integrating design with opportunity and a commitment to the vibrancy of the neighborhoods we live in is key to the success of our society.

If you’re looking for an architecture partner with strong experience in affordable housing and social and environmental sustainability, Marks, Thomas Architects can help. Reach out to us to start the conversation.