On an August morning in 2022, I hopped on my bicycle for a quick ride to a construction site. I arrived at a series of vacant lots across from an elementary school in Chicago’s West Humboldt Park neighborhood, where construction workers in yellow vests gazed at the flatbed truck parked in the road. The workers were making ready for the big show: Soon, a crane would hoist the first floor of a new Chicago home from the truck’s bed to its final resting spot on one of those long-vacant lots. The lower half of the house swung from the air while being hand-pulled and anchored to its foundation. It was high-drama as neighbors emerged to watch a house not get built, but installed.
The project was developed by Inherent Homes, a new manufactured modular housing company founded and led by designer Tim Swanson. I met Swanson in 2016 when he was a principal at CannonDesign cutting his teeth on pre-fab construction for healthcare facilities, and followed his career to Skender where he led the company's modular development team.
Today, through Inherent Homes, Swanson is attempting to build up local labor economies by manufacturing affordable housing. The approach is perhaps a different way of thinking about housing beyond tired NIMBY/YIMBY binaries and supply skepticism; to imagine innovative housing construction methods as a means to develop strong labor forces and small businesses, as well as homeownership for those typically locked out of wealth-building. For postindustrial cities where manufacturing job losses from automotive and steel industries numbered in the hundreds of thousands, shifting modular housing’s focus from design innovation to labor empowerment could present opportunities to tap into existing infrastructure, deploy thousands of new homes, and secure postindustrial cities’ futures as places for fair labor practices and vibrant local economies.
Inherent Homes’ L3C model insists on particularities: Houses are priced at 140% area median income, and with subsidies can be sold at 60 to 80% AMI; they are built on city-owned vacant land acquired through civic partnership. The Chicago-headquartered company works with affordable homeownership nonprofit Neighborhood Housing Services to ensure mortgages are non-predatory, that buyers are pre-qualified, and that they receive ongoing support for maintenance. Some mortgages also come with disability insurance to help mitigate any catastrophic life events that might otherwise cause foreclosure. The model, Swanson says, is built around homeowners. But in many ways, it is built upon the postindustrial region’s labor history.
“In many Rust Belt cities, there used to be this tie-in—happy workforce, productive workforce,” Swanson says. That workers could afford the cars they produced was, he says, an “intentionality that gets lost in the ruckus of profiteering.”
Intentionally focusing on the workforce is key to manufacturing homes under the Inherent Homes model. While most home builders focus their model on being “builders of houses,” Swanson said, this leaves workers out of the equation in favor of innovative delivery models—promoting 3D printing, for example, over hiring, training, and retaining the workforce performing the manufacturing and deployment labor.
“Whether we're in Chicago or any city in America—especially during recessionary times—housing is worse for our working class,” Swanson says. Fixing the machine’s design and delivery component only solves one portion of the problem.
So, why not focus the housing construction model on empowering new skilled workers to build manufactured housing? By working with Chicago’s robust construction workforce training programs including Chicago Women in Trades and Rebuilding Exchange, that train formerly-incarcerated peoples, people of color, and women—groups that are marginalized or who face inequitable hiring practices—Inherent Homes continues on-site instruction for new construction workers while paying above-living wages and providing paid leave and full benefits. Some of those individuals have gone on, Swanson says, to start their own small businesses or join a labor union. He is also hiring entrepreneurs and small businesses from the communities receiving the manufactured homes to install HVAC systems, pour concrete, and build fences.
The Inherent Homes factory is in a historically disinvested neighborhood of North Lawndale—the former home of the Sears manufacturing facility. “Anywhere between 10% and 15% of the dollars made in North Lawndale stay in North Lawndale,” Swanson says, yielding $124 million ‘leaking’ from the community due to insufficient living wage jobs in the area, among other disinvestment issues, according to a report by the Great Cities Institute. Subcontracting locally, hiring and training local labor keeps dollars local and helps ensure that his workers could afford the products they manufacture while remaining in their neighborhood. It’s also a win for adaptive reuse.
“The buildings that supported the last generation of manufacturing can actually support the next generation of manufacturing,” Swanson says. “If we imagine the Rust Belt is the future of housing solutions, we can reuse the infrastructure; we can return to some of those old, light industrial buildings that were built as centers for work and community.”
This model is a hard turn away from some of Chicago’s contemporary industrial uses, like a recent conversion of the former Crawford Generating Station into a Target distribution warehouse, which in 2020 rocked the nearby community when a coal stack imploded during construction and coated the Latinx neighborhood in potentially-toxic dust; and, which later promised jobs to locals with questionable delivery. Or, any number of the new Amazon warehouse distribution facilities, which bring hundreds of diesel fume-spewing trucks to neighborhoods of color with already-poor health outcomes—as well as hundreds of low paying jobs in notoriously dangerous conditions.
A labor-first housing model has the potential to generate thousands of new homes, train workers in skills that build careers, incubate local businesses, and, importantly, ready postindustrial cities for what one might hope will be larger federal infrastructural and housing investments. We’ve seen precedent models in Pennsylvania with its Whole Home Repairs program, which trains a new workforce in rehabbing housing for climate change mitigation. But, facing a labor crunch under recent infrastructure legislation, a new generation of labor—one organized on living wages and rooted in local economies—is needed as critically as an influx of new homes. The next step is to implement at scale: When the United States turns to the Green New Deal and its plans for housing reform, our postindustrial cities will be ready to go to work.
The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.
Read more from Anjulie Rao: On unionizing as pedagogy. | Prioritizing carework in design—rather than tech innovations or green metrics—will lay foundations for more sustainable communities. | The pursuit and promise of equity in architecture.