Sustainable and Inclusive Housing Initiative
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An image of a concept house constructed entirely from recycled waste material.
A concept house constructed entirely from recycled waste material provides an affordable housing solution that promotes local economic development while eliminating waste. Image Credit, Rafael Ribeiro.
With approximately one billion people across the world living in substandard housing conditions in or around urban centers and millions more migrating to cities each year, the challenge for participants in the Sustainable Urban Housing Competition: Collaborating for Livable and Inclusive Cities was clear: share models that create sustainable urban housing opportunities and foster the development of cities capable of meeting the challenges of the 21st century. On July 19 and 20, HUD’s Office for International and Philanthropic Innovation, in collaboration with the American Planning Association, Ashoka’s Changemakers program, the Brazilian Ministry of Cities, the U.S. Department of State, and the Rockefeller Foundation, honored the eight finalists and three award winners with a ceremony at the National Building Museum, and a policy exchange panel the following day at HUD’s headquarters in Washington, DC..

The competition was inspired by the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas, a collaboration among Western Hemisphere nations initiated by President Obama and designed to develop solutions to climate change, energy security, and sustainable development. The response to the competition was overwhelming: in just 3 months, the committee received nearly 300 proposals from more than 30 countries. The panel of expert judges was tasked with evaluating the proposals based on innovation, social impact, and operational sustainability of the project.

Over the course of the two-day program it was evident that solutions to sustainable urban housing are not confined to dwellings alone; to address the most pressing issues facing the urban poor, expanded programs that provide essential community services, promote local economic development, and educate and empower citizens are critically important.

The Kibera Public Space Project, one of the event’s eight finalists, embodies an innovative approach to community development. Through community-driven planning, design, and implementation, the project reclaimed land surrounding impoverished villages in Nairobi, Kenya, and repurposed it for public use. The project outcome, a Productive Public Space, can be used for various community needs such as commerce, social gatherings, and recreation. Although the project does not directly address the physical component of housing conditions, it contributes to the livability of the settlements by providing an essential community resource that can be leveraged to improve the lives of residents. The other seven finalists’ projects were equally innovative and shared the common themes of education, empowerment, and sustainability.

The policy exchange panel on Wednesday allowed for more detailed presentations and discussion of the three winning entries. The winning teams, from Argentina, Brazil and the United States, presented solutions to sustainable urban housing that are sensitive to the local context but also have significant potential for scalability to other cities, regions, and countries. “The three winners clearly have that extra measure of innovation, inclusiveness and sustainability that we were looking for to drive them to the top of the voting. They should be very proud and we are excited about working in the coming phases with them and our partners,” stated Deputy Assistant Secretary for International and Philanthropic Innovation, Ana Marie Argilagos. In addition to being featured on the policy panel, the winning teams received a $10,000 award to expand and grow their efforts.

The sustainable housing solution proposed by Habitat for Humanity Argentina (HPHA) in Buenos Aires focuses on providing “fair rentals” to city residents inhabiting substandard dwellings. In Argentina many residents are excluded from the rental market despite their ability to afford market rate rents because the upfront costs are prohibitively high. Through a pilot project, HPHA developed a housing mobility program that rehabilitates buildings and rents them to low-income residents with the goal that they will move into the private rental market within two to four years. The program helps residents build savings and a good tenant history, which are critical components to achieving self-sufficiency in the Buenos Aires housing market.

In the United States, the postindustrial cities, with their aging housing stock and high vacancy rates, provide one of the most significant opportunities for sustainable urban housing solutions. People United for Sustainable Housing Buffalo integrates energy-efficient housing rehabilitation, urban agriculture, and other green infrastructure projects into its Green Development Zone, a neighborhood revitalization project focused on 25 blocks of the city’s most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. The organization engages on several levels to promote and implement its revitalization plan, from working with city officials and the state legislature to shape a constructive policy environment to empowering community members to create a vision for neighborhood vitality. This comprehensive engagement process has led to many successful outcomes, including improved housing opportunities for low-income residents and workforce training for young adults. This small-scale revitalization strategy serves as a model for many cities in the United States facing similar issues by targeting resources in a strategic approach and using the neighborhood’s most important asset, people, to initiate improvements.

Perhaps the most ambitious of the award winning projects is Zero Waste, a project conceived in the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo. Zero Waste integrates two significant problems facing society, waste material (trash) and affordable housing, into an urban housing solution. The means of achieving this result is a waste-processing center that generates electricity while transforming waste into building materials for the construction of affordable housing. The project designers believe the waste recycling plant’s modular design will allow it to be produced at any scale, depending upon the size of the community, which gives it significant potential to be used across the globe. The $10,000 award will help fund the construction of a pilot plant that will showcase the viability of the project to governments and private-sector investors.

Although the award ceremony highlighted the end of the formal competition, the event is just the beginning of the idea exchange and implementation phase for sustainable urban housing solutions. A critical component of the initiative was Ashoka’s Changemakers program and its global online community, which served as a vehicle for promoting and hosting the competition. Ashoka’s model for social change is rooted in the import and export of innovation among its online community of more than 500,000 Changemakers. Through this network, social entrepreneurs are able to continue to learn from, and contribute to, the models of sustainable urban housing highlighted by the competition.