Can Low-Cost Housing Mean High Rewards?



Michael Pyatok wanted to give no false impressions during a lecture to Sarasota's architect community Tuesday night. While the acclaimed architect had a slideshow full of successful projects that helped provide affordable housing to low-income Americans, he did not want anyone to believe he had even made a good start at solving some sort of challenge. "I would feel guilty if I got you thinking this country is intelligently resolving its problem," he said, half-joking.

Pyatok, a professor and architect from Oakland, Calif., whose office has designed more than 35,000 units of affordable housing for low-income households, spoke at The Francis as part of the Center For Architecture Sarasota's Archtober series. In a room full of architects, Pyatok talked plenty about how to design a good project for low-income families—cluster homes to make a sense of community, never locate children too close to a parking garage for fear of safety both for the kids and cars, allow for proper ventilation so people cooking can clear smoke from their homes quickly—a significant part of his lecture focused on the economic problems facing the middle and lower class today. He said groups like Occupy Wall Street have generated good attention to the accumulation of wealth by the top 1 percent of earners, but thought it was overlooked that the bottom 80 percent of earners was responsible for just 40 percent of product consumption today. "The financial sector is running away with our wealth from our labor," he said.

Affordable housing, Pyatok suggested, could help empower those with modest incomes again by making sure a lower percentage of their income was being spent on shelter. That, in turn, would allow employers to offer more competitive salaries and lead to a greater amount of commerce in the region.

Pyatok's lecture was followed by a panel discussion among local figures discussing Sarasota's housing state today. Developer Jesse Biter said he had concerns about subsidized affordable housing because income requirements could result in dependency. He would prefer an increase in allowable density for housing downtown so developers could offer housing in the middle-class price range without public assistance playing a role. "I'm a firm believer everyone needs a hand up, not a handout," he said. 

Sarasota City Manager Tom Barwin, though, said there is an enormous need for affordable housing in the city. He noted the Sarasota Housing Authority is managing some 1,400 rental subsidy vouchers right now, in comparison to about 200 being handled in Bradenton and a total of 1,100 being handled by Manatee County.

David Brain, New College of Florida professor, said the community needs to stop thinking of poor families as a problem that must be cured. "This is really an opportunity," he said, noting communities can flourish with more homeowners who live, work and play in the region. 

Urban design planner Andrew Georgiadis, of Sarasota's Urban Design Studio, said the city needs first to address problems in its code that prevent good development in the city, noting some properties have setback requirements that prohibit development. Certain fixes to city code, he said, could allow construction of cheaper housing like granny flats.

Jim Shirley, executive director of the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County, said opportunities are coming quickly that could result in affordable housing centered around art. The trick will be making sure areas remain accessible even as projects become successful "Look at Towles Court," he said, noting that the artist colony once provided affordable homes for artists but subsequently property values shot up and young artists can longer afford to move in.

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