Lorcan O'Herlihy Architect's LEED Gold Design for MLK1101 in South L.A.
Lorcan O'Herlihy Architects Lorcan O'Herlihy Architect's LEED Gold Design for MLK1101 in South L.A.

President Joe Biden wasted no time during his first day in office, signing more than a dozen executive orders, memorandums, and directives—several of which served as ways to course-correct or reverse decisions made by his predecessor.

Many architects and developers, especially those focused on affordable housing projects, view President Biden’s arrival as a chance for transformation. “He changed the tone from the moment he got in there. It gave a jolt of energy and a commitment and conviction for possible change,” says Lorcan O’Herlihy, founder and principal of Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects in Los Angeles. In comparison, he says, the last four years have been “somewhat challenging in terms of wanting to do work of consequence.”

For Mark Ginsberg, principal at Curtis + Ginsberg Architects in New York, “the last four years at a federal administrative level have been the worst.” Though Congress thwarted former President Trump’s plans to cut HUD’s budget, it wasn’t expanded. “We’ve had our hands tied,” Ginsberg says. “We know we can do more architecturally. We know we can do more in terms of sustainability and affordable housing. But there has been no new federal funding or commitments for sustainability.”

Noting that “housing should be a right, not a privilege,” President Biden laid out his housing plan early in his campaign. The proposal, released in March 2020, addresses the nationwide housing shortage, the need for more affordable units, and the discriminatory practices that have caused Black and Latino Americans to have lower homeownership rates.

President Biden’s proposed investment in housing includes an influx of $640 billion over the course of a decade. But this funding has to stretch across dozens of cities and states, and Congress has yet to approve the new initiatives, as Ginsberg points out. “I can’t necessarily tell you if it’s enough,” he says. “But it’s clearly in the right direction.”

Helping Americans Buy or Rent Homes

Eric Paine, the CEO of Community Development Partners, an affordable housing developer in Portland, Ore., believes President Biden’s proposed expansion of Section 8 vouchers is “a critical affordable housing finance tool that will make a meaningful impact in terms of housing production for extremely low-income households.”

Roughly three in four households that are eligible for Section 8 rental assistance do not receive it because the program is underfunded, according to President Biden’s proposal. His plan includes distributing vouchers to “every eligible family” so that no one has to pay more than 30% of their income for rental housing.

“As chronic homelessness has increased significantly in so many of our communities, this Section 8 expansion is going to be vital,” says Paine, whose development firm focuses on building “mission-driven communities” in Western states such as Oregon, California, and Arizona. “We are using Section 8 in every single housing community that we develop that is targeting homelessness,” he says.

President Biden’s proposal also includes enacting a $5 billion yearly tax credit to reduce rent and utilities to 30% of income for low-income families who earn too much money to qualify for Section 8 vouchers. “Right now it’s 60% to 70% [of income] for quite a few people,” O’Herlihy says, referring to renters in Los Angeles, one of the most rent-burdened metropolitan areas in the nation. “And you can see what happens if they lose their jobs—they lose their source of income, can’t pay the rent, and they’re out on the street,” he adds.

Increasing Supply and Lowering the Cost of Housing

The President’s plan not only calls for sending vouchers and allocating tax credits to individual Americans, it also directs billions of dollars to states and localities where housing supply is limited and the cost of living is high.

With more than 180,000 units, New York City has the largest number of public housing residences in the country and is in desperate need of funds. “Just to give you an idea of demand, we’ll finish a 100-unit affordable housing building and there will be 50,000 applicants,” says Ginsberg, noting that many city neighborhoods have public housing developments that are falling apart. “Unless we get enough money to fund and repair them, we can lose them,” he cautions.

To mitigate such issues, the President’s proposal includes $65 billion in new incentives to construct or rehabilitate low-cost, efficient, resilient, and accessible housing for localities that are suffering from an affordability crisis and are willing to implement new zoning laws that encourage more affordable housing. Biden also plans to increase funding for the Housing Trust Fund by $20 billion, expand the low-income housing tax credit with a $10 billion investment, and set aside $5 billion for localities to purchase vacant, underdeveloped, or underutilized property and construct affordable housing.

Ginsberg is hoping these new rounds of funding will kick-start projects that were stalled because of New York’s budget deficits caused by the pandemic. “Our clients can’t get commitments for funding, so they don’t want to spend money having us design a building that might sit there for two years,” he explains, adding that if federal government money does not materialize, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo warned of raising taxes and “cutting everything to the bone.”

Improving the Quality of Housing

Several architects and developers are refreshed by President Biden’s commitment to science, particularly in terms of climate change and sustainability. The President’s plan states a commitment to ensuring that every American has housing that is energy-efficient, resilient enough to withstand the impacts of climate change, and capable of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The world’s “low carbon future” ties directly into housing, says Ginsberg. “Affordable housing has often been more energy efficient than typical market-rate housing partially because of requirements and partially because it’s largely rental buildings. Particularly with affordable housing where owners can’t raise the rents, keeping your operating costs down is really critical for the long-term health [of the development].”

Ending Redlining and Other Discriminatory Practices

In one of the many rollbacks from the Trump administration, President Biden plans to undo policies that gutted fair lending and fair housing protections for homeowners. He wants to implement a rule from the Obama-Biden-era requiring communities receiving certain federal funding to proactively examine housing patterns and identify and address policies that have a discriminatory effect.

As a firm that focuses on partnering with organizations led by people of color, Paine says he is “inspired to see the Biden administration’s acknowledgment of the need for approaching housing policy with a racial equity lens to ensure communities of color are consulted with and their needs served.”

As the CEO of McAfee3 Architects, a Black-owned firm based in Atlanta, Cheryl McAfee has a personal history with discrimination and advocating for racial justice. Her father, Charles McAfee, began fighting for equal housing legislation in the 1960s. “We had threats and all kinds of things against our family because he was going to Washington and fighting for equal housing,” she recalls.

Though her father had ambitious plans for affordable housing, financial constraints have prevented the firm from producing such projects since the Clinton era. “There are a lot of sacrifices I have made personally. And I’m not the only one. Friends have also sacrificed financially to withstand these economic challenges,” she says. “We need to make building affordable units profitable for small businesses.”

Now, McAfee is looking to President Biden’s plan, which assures that minority-owned businesses will benefit from federal housing and infrastructure spending.

From McAfee’s view, this should include breaking down barriers, such as HUD’s criteria to produce affordable housing, as well as providing access to capital and building bridges between big developers and small firms. There also needs to be a cultural shift, she says. “Society needs to value the worth of small and minority-owned businesses — black-owned businesses, indigenous-owned businesses. And that requires a change of attitude in government.”

With the new administration’s plans in sight, she declares a sentiment shared by many of her peers: “I want to come out of these next four years very strong and resilient as a company.”