Foreclosed: Buying into the “American Dream”

MoMA and The Buell Center invited a series of team participants and observers who attended workshops for The Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream, which opens in February, to reflect on the project. Here are thoughts from journalist Alex Ulam.

U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan discussing Studio Gang's proposal with Jeanne Gang at the September 17th Open Studios at MoMA PS1. Photograph by Brett W. Messenger. © 2011 The Museum of Modern Art

Some mortgage industry analysts are now predicting that one out of five mortgages will eventually end in default if our elected officials don’t take action. The surge in Occupy Wall Street demonstrations is a powerful signal that growing numbers of people want radical change to the status quo. And four years into the crisis, government officials have been unable to effectively deal with the extensive blight in communities afflicted with high rates of foreclosure.

Foreclosed calls into question the American Dream of home ownership and the way it was packaged and sold in the form of a single-family house in the suburbs. It ties the current foreclosure crisis to unsustainable trends in housing and planning that go back to the days of Frank Lloyd Wright and his Broadacre City. The exhibition also demonstrates how prevailing models for suburban development are not only environmentally unsustainable, but also financially unsound.

The keynote speech for the exhibition, delivered by U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan in September at MoMA PS1, was a call to arms for planners and architects.

Donovan told the audience that the foreclosure crisis disproportionately hit low- income and minority households in the suburbs. He noted how in some of these communities the majority of people receiving mortgages during the housing bubble were given subprime loans when many of them qualified for prime ones. And he cited a study that showed that Latinos in this country lost two-thirds of their wealth between 2005 and 2009.

In addition to dashing the hopes and aspirations of millions of homeowners, the housing bubble left the country with scars on its landscape in the form of decaying suburban subdivisions. And where was the planning profession during the housing bubble? “Our affordable housing strategy,” said Donovan, “was effectively: ‘If you cannot afford a house near a job or public transportation, just keep on driving.’”

Now many of the low-income people who bought at the height of the bubble owe more on their mortgages than their houses are worth. And instead of helping people build equity and offering a chance at middle-class life, home ownership actually has reduced social mobility by turning our most vulnerable citizens into debt slaves with ruined credit histories.

So what are we to do about the blighted suburbs littered throughout the country in the wake of the foreclosure crisis? The Foreclosed exhibition presents the work of five multidisciplinary teams headed by architects who were tasked to develop alternative visions for suburbia.

For background, the architects were provided with the Buell Hypothesis, a disquisition on the origins of the foreclosure crisis and the history of suburban sprawl prepared by Columbia University’s Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture. The teams were then sent out into the field to develop plans for real places. The sites that were chosen ranged from a failed subdivision in Rialto, California, to the rustbelt town of Cicero, Illinois.

U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan discussing MOS's proposal with Michael Meredith and Hilary Sample at the September 17th Open Studios at MoMA PS1. Photograph by Brett W. Messenger. © 2011 The Museum of Modern Art

The different teams worked to design site-specific plans with input from local communities, but what unified them was the way they aimed to make their sites at once both self-sufficient and better connected to their broader metropolitan regions. To that end, the different models included infrastructure such as light rail, co-generation electrical plants, recycling centers, and gardens to enable people to grow their own food. Some plans included light industrial facilities and workspaces adjacent to residential areas so people would not have to endure long automobile commutes to get to work.

Instead of cookie cutter houses that are oriented towards an outdated concept of the nuclear family, the different teams suggested adding a variety of housing types that would provide shelter for people in different groupings such as empty nesters and extended families. Sidewalks and walkways would be added to make communities more pedestrian friendly, while the incorporation of retail and light industrial infill developments would aid in reducing dependence on cars.

Along with changes to the built environment, the teams proposed changes to the predominant forms of home ownership. To make housing more affordable in East Orange, New Jersey, the team headed by the architecture firm MOS proposed a partial ownership model where residents owned 50 percent of the value of the property and the rest was owned by a cooperative. As part of an effort to reduce the real estate speculation that drives up property prices, the team headed by Studio Gang proposed a cooperative model in Cicero, Illinois, in which the homeowners own their dwellings but not the land underneath.

The teams also suggested alternative models to prevalent development strategies such as the public-private partnership. One team, Visible Weather, questioned the model that the city of Temple Terrace, Florida, used to develop a 29-acre retail property. Instead of turning the property over to a private developer, the city might have created a real estate investment trust that would share the income with the residents of the city of Temple Terrace. By retaining control of the property, the city would also be in a better position to build a more environmentally sustainable development.

Reshaping the dominant suburban development paradigms is a tall order. But the Foreclosed exhibition provides a good start. The people who were conned into buying a flawed version of the American Dream deserve a second chance.

U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan discussing Visible Weather's proposal with Michael Bell at the September 17th Open Studios at MoMA PS1. Photograph by Brett W. Messenger. © 2011 The Museum of Modern Art