Why architects need help solving the housing crisis

Here are some strategies architects should consider when designing affordable housing, with the health and vitality of our communities in mind.

This is an excerpt adapted from “Purposeful Practice: A Guide to Mission-Driven Design” by Bill Liddy, FAIA, Director at Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects and the firm’s team. Republished with permission.

The housing crisis in the United States has been the subject of widespread debate for decades, with recent studies confirming that it is escalating and affecting Americans at almost all income levels. During the COVID-19 pandemic, home prices have risen sharply nationwide while median incomes have fallen.

In 2021, the average income required was $144,000 for homeownership in the United States, while the national average was $69,000. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the United States currently has a deficit of 6.8 million homes, which has led to greater housing instability among low- and very low-income Americans.

In California, the average annual household income required to rent a two-bedroom residence is $81,191. Tragically, 1.2 million families in the state, or 21% of the population, suffer from this problem Annual income of $27,330 or less. Nationally, there are an estimated 580,000 homeless people, including more than 200,000 homeless, living on the streets of one of the richest countries on Earth.

Statistics tell only part of the story. Perhaps a more relevant perspective is to see the housing crisis for what it is: a profound public health crisis. the The Public Health Law Network notes that “housing instability…causes and exacerbates health problems, erodes communities, and leads to health inequalities…Those who lack stable housing are more vulnerable to homelessness, unemployment, and substance abuse, food insecurity, and violence.”

Access to safe, healthy and dignified housing has long been considered a basic human equality, and was formally recognized by the United Nations in 1948 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Nearly two decades later, this non-binding declaration was codified into a binding treaty in the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The United States has signed but not yet ratified this treaty. In 1999, The Faircloth Amendment to the American Housing Act of 1937 prohibited all new federally funded public housing except one-for-one replacement, reversing years of housing benefits. Since then, state and local public housing agencies and nonprofit affordable housing developers have formed public-private partnerships in many cities to piece together complex financing models that allow some affordable housing projects to proceed.

Architecture plays an important role in addressing the housing crisis. Well-designed affordable housing is as critical to the health and vitality of our communities as any other type of building. It deserves the same creativity and dedication from architects as any museum, library or school. Here are some strategies to consider.


Affordable housing can build strong, just communities inside and outside its walls. Their contributions must be transparent and welcome everyone with dignity and respect. Including generous community rooms, garden courts and supportive service spaces, it will invite residents to gather and socialize. The buildings themselves can contribute to and symbolize an inclusive and diverse community.


Designing affordable housing requires working within limited budgets, leveraging every step in the design to achieve multiple practical and aesthetic benefits. Individual units should be simple and compact, but when they are creatively assembled – like a three-dimensional puzzle rather than a one-dimensional box – they can add interest to the mass of a building. Efficient, dual corridors can be reimagined by adding daylight, celebrating the units’ input, and treating them as community gathering spaces. Economical and durable finishes can be elevated through careful detailing, and special features or finishes can be used in shared spaces to greatest effect.


Healthy indoor air quality, abundant daylight, connection to nature, and access to on-site job training and counseling: these are all important strategies that support individuals who may need time to heal. But perhaps the most important contributor to their well-being is the sense of security, hope, and dignity that well-designed architecture can bring to their daily lives.

Carbon removal

Affordable housing projects provide multiple opportunities for Reducing energy and carbon emissions while enhancing urban vitality. At the construction level, the nonprofit housing developers who typically operate these buildings have a financial incentive to reduce ongoing operating costs.

Economic passive house strategies can enhance envelope performance; On-site renewable energy is now the lowest cost energy source in many areas. At the city level, multifamily housing located in densely populated areas near public transportation is a model for sustainable urban development. It brings new life to its community while significantly reducing carbon emissions.


Affordable housing serves its residents by providing stable shelter during earthquakes, wildfires, severe weather, or other disruptive events. They can also serve their broader community by becoming centers of resiliency that provide a safe and healthy haven for neighbors during these same periods.

Projects completed by our firm in the San Francisco Bay Area clearly demonstrate the multiple ways in which affordable housing can address some of the most pressing challenges our cities face. The Plaza Apartments, located in San Francisco’s SOMA district, is a successful early model of supportive housing for chronically unhoused individuals. He helped revitalize the neglected neighborhood. Merritt Crossing in Oakland has transformed the site of a former gas station into a sustainable, caring home for low-income seniors at risk of homelessness. The Nancy and Stephen Grand Family Home, located in San Francisco’s Mission Bay district, provides free housing and a supportive community for families of critically ill children being treated at nearby UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital.

Bill Liddy, founding principal of LEDDY MAYTUM STACY Architects in San Francisco, believes architecture has an important role to play in leading our communities toward a just, zero-carbon future for all.

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