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Author: ‘Common-sense housing’ needed

If $3-per-gallon gas prices have forced Americans to think about smart cars, the nation’s housing gap should push us to also look at smart housing, an author and architect told 300 people at a Spokane gathering Monday.

Avi Friedman, a professor of architecture at McGill University in Montreal, said the lifestyle of large, sprawling developments has produced a society that’s losing touch with true community and fairness.

Friedman was the keynote speaker during Monday’s session of the three-day Housing Washington 2005 event. The annual conference brings together several hundred Washington state housing advocates, business leaders and government officials to strategize more housing options for lower-income residents.

The conference ends today.

Friedman, the author of numerous books on housing, said the United States and nearly all developed nations suffer from bloated and inefficient housing planning.

“We have to reduce the sprawl and reduce the costs of the houses we build,” said Friedman. During the past two decades, Friedman has advocated the concepts of innovative “Grow Homes” that start small and simple, then evolve and add features over time.

He argues that too many Americans have embraced living on a half-acre of land on subdivisions miles from the city in which they work.

Among his comments during an hour-long presentation:

“People in this country are still living in the time of 1940s housing.”

“What we need to do is develop a strategy of common-sense housing.”

“We spend as much money on adding a mile of new road (to a new subdivision) as we spend on a new school or 50 affordable houses.”

Washington, said Friedman, “is probably the smartest state in the country in terms of thinking about affordable, sustainable housing.”

Even so, conference attendees attended numerous sessions that focused on challenges still confronting residents across Washington state.

“More than one-third of the families in this state pay more than 30 percent of their take-home income on housing, or live in substandard or crowded housing,” said Shane Rock, executive director of the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance. The group is a nonprofit agency advocating policies that preserve or expand affordable housing.

Numerous sessions presented Sunday and Monday raised the question of how the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina will affect policy decisions by the federal government. Most presenters at the conference, like Rock, agreed the result will be less money for already cash-starved programs.

“The hurricane and the aftermath have generated much more need for affordable housing,” said Rock. “The federal government has to step in and help,” he said. But most of the money for Gulf Coast relief efforts will be diverted from other key programs serving other parts of the country, he said.

The only option is the one many Republican leaders have typically not favored: printing more money and increasing the national debt, he said.

“Even so, we’re seeing more interest in that kind of effort among Republican leaders,” Rock noted.

Friedman added that any developer looking ahead and trying to design a smart, efficient and socially responsible cluster of low-income houses should keep in mind the “come back in a decade rule.”

“If we go to a place we’ve just built in 10 years, you need to ask: how many flower planters are there now? How many trees have been planted?” Those results, he said, reveal whether true community has occurred, as opposed to occupancy.

Developers in Washington are getting that message, said Kim Herman, executive director of the Washington State Housing Finance Commission.

He pointed to the success of Dishman Commons, in Spokane Valley, as an example of planned and very efficient community housing.

Developed by Greenstone Corp., Dishman Commons is a mixed-housing neighborhood designed to be affordable by middle and lower-income families.

“It’s a great example of smart, high-density development,” said Herman.