Four practical ideas to improve the affordable housing crisis

A fund to expand Black families’ homeownership and an atlas that demystifies zoning laws are among winners of the 2023 Ivory Prize for Housing Affordability.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) A home under construction in West Valley City, Friday, Nov. 4, 2022.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

When Aisha T. Weeks first moved to Denver she drove to Dearfield, Colorado, a ghost town about 90 minutes northeast.

She found just two crumbling buildings and a plaque.

Dearfield, established in 1910, was once a thriving Black homesteading community.

“It was established by Oliver T. Jackson, who believed that in order for Black folks to really experience the American Dream that they needed to own land and property,” Weeks explained. “I just wanted to see where this town was established.”

In its heyday there were schools, churches, meeting halls, and businesses.

More than a century after Jackson established Dearfield, Weeks was making a cross-country journey of her own to take a job as the managing director of the Dearfield Fund for Black Wealth. Weeks, like Jackson, is on her own mission to lift up Black families through property ownership.

“When you look at the gap in homeownership between white and Black families,” Weeks said, “you really see that wealth created through homeownership has not been available to Black families due to centuries long discrimination, particularly in housing.”

(Courtesy of Gary Community Ventures) Aisha T. Weeks is the managing director of the Dearfield Fund for Black Wealth, which provides Black families with down payment assistance.

The fund provides down payment assistance (up to $40,000) to Black families around the six-county Denver metro area. Families that make up to 140% of the area median income, i.e. those that are firmly middle class, are eligible. The fund also continues to provide advice beyond just buying a home “to ensure that they’re leveraging this asset to be passed down in their lifetime to the next generation.”

The Dearfield Fund for Black Wealth is one of four winners of the 2023 Ivory Prize for Housing Affordability. The winners of the nationwide annual contest included companies trying to drive down the cost of construction to researchers examining zoning laws across the nation. Winners share a cash prize of $300,000.

“These remarkable winners of the 2023 Ivory Prize for Housing Affordability exemplify the spirit of innovation and the transformative impact it can have on addressing the pressing housing affordability crisis,” said Clark Ivory, CEO of Ivory Homes and founder of Ivory Innovations, in a statement. “Their visionary approaches, from harnessing industrial-scale robotics to empowering marginalized communities, streamlining processes, and bringing transparency to zoning laws, inspire us to push boundaries and create a more accessible and equitable housing future for all.”

The Tribune spoke with the winners about their work and how they hoped to alleviate the affordable housing crisis so many communities in Utah — and across the West — are facing.

An under-studied theory of everything

“Let me just say, it governs nearly everything that gets built in the United States,” said Sara Bronin, “and yet we know very little about it.”

She’s talking about zoning.

(Courtesy of the National Zoning Atlas) Sara Bronin, director of the National Zoning Atlas is interested in the little-studied corner of law that can make or break housing affordability.

Bronin, a professor at Cornell University’s school of art, architecture and planning, describes herself as “one of those people that just is very interested in laws that govern our built environment.”

Through a project dubbed the National Zoning Atlas, Bronin, along with fellow researchers and regional teams made up of students, nonprofits, public officials and academics, is trying to demystify and catalog a corner of law that can make or break communities’ efforts to build affordable housing.

However, because zoning gets adopted at the local level, creating an “atlas” of laws across the nation is “a painstaking process.” So far, Bronin’s team cataloged zoning laws in three states: Connecticut, New Hampshire and Montana.

In New Hampshire, “that zoning atlas has exposed wide disparities in the way local governments treat housing,” Bronin said, “and it also shows that it’s really difficult to build affordable housing, including multifamily housing and housing on small lots.”

Armed with a better understanding of their local zoning laws, Bronin said states like Connectituct and Montana are already working to institute reforms to ease the building of affordable housing.

Automated construction

“This is a 1,500-square-foot, single-story house,” said Jack Oslan.

It’s 100 feet deep, 50 feet wide and roughly 30 feet tall.

The concrete shell Oslan is looking at is printed.

(Courtesy Diamond Age) Diamond Age is building this single-family home with automated tools to help cut construction costs.

“We call it 3-D printing because it’s easy for people to understand,” Oslan said, “but really what we’re doing is extruding concrete into the shape of a brick, but the bricks are in wall length segments.”

Oslan is CEO and co-founder of Diamond Age, a company based in Phoenix, Arizona, trying to automate all but the finer touches of home construction.

He contends there is a severe labor shortage in the construction industry, particularly in homebuilding because “nobody wants to do that physically demanding work. Nobody wants to swing a hammer. Nobody wants to hold drywall up over their head. Nobody wants to stucco the exterior of homes, and nobody wants to be up on a roof anymore.”

The technology Diamond Age is designing should do the “dull, dirty and dangerous,” jobs while leaving work that requires fine motor skills and aesthetic judgment to humans.

In 2017 Oslan started Diamond Age after watching his kids try, and struggle, to buy homes of their own. “I got upset about that,” Oslan said.

“I’ve been around factory automation and the manufacturing of millions of units that only cost pennies,” he said. The hope is that Diamond Age brings that same efficiency, and lower costs, to homebuilding.

Although Oslan says his company takes less time to build a home, it’s not currently cheaper than conventional methods.

“Today, it’s more expensive,” Oslan said, “but that’s the price of technology development.” He hopes that within 24 months the company will be profitable and self-sustaining.

The company is currently building a 43-home development in Pinal County, Ariz., between Phoenix and Tucson. “It’s our intention to build all around the United States,” Oslan said.

Permitting plain sailing

The journey to securing building permits for new home construction can be fraught with challenges for developers and builders.

The dance of submission, review and correcting mistakes between developers and municipal governments can take up to five or six months.

All the while, developers are losing money by the day as they wait to finally get a green light.

(Courtesy of Francis Thumpasery) PermitFlow co-founders Samuel Lam (left) and Francis Thumpasery (right) aim to make the construction permitting process faster and smoother.

PermitFlow, based in San Jose, Calif., aims to make that process smoother through automation.

“We’ll help you avoid all those errors,” said Francis Thumpasery, co-founder and CEO of PermitFlow, " because we’re permitting specialists, and we have software that helps us aggregate and avoid errors and also do things in a more efficient manner.”

They currently operate in metro areas in Texas, Florida and California.

“Our mission,” Thumpasery said, “is to make it basically faster, easier, and more transparent to get a construction project [permitted].”

Editor’s note • The Clark and Christine Ivory Foundation is a donor to The Salt Lake Tribune’s Innovation Lab.