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“It’s a basket of solutions”

Tamara Roy AIA speaks with John McAslan Hon. FAIA


British architect John McAslan’s presentation at the 2016 AIA convention, “Making Room: The Housing Crises in London and New York,” was a hit with architects and advocates alike, as he outlined commonalities between the two world capitals and offered a template for change. In this condensed interview, McAslan hon. FAIA and Tamara Roy AIA expand the lens to include another high-cost city, Boston, and discover many similar challenges and opportunities.

John McAslan: When I arrived in London, the population was about 6 or 7 million people, and you got on a waiting list for a [government-subsidized] Council flat. It was incredibly easy. And it’s now phenomenally difficult. The population of London has returned to its prewar figure of about 8.5 million, so it’s equivalent to New York. If growth continues and we can’t meet the housing targets, which we won’t, people will be pushed out to the suburban areas, which increases commutes, decreases quality of life, and pushes up prices. 

There are extraordinary statistics, equivalent to New York, probably comparable to Boston, where graduates want to continue living in the central parts of cities. Up to 75 percent of their net income can be spent on housing. My son spent 60 percent of his on housing. He makes that choice because he wants to live away from home, completely understandable, but it’s almost an unaffordable proposition. 

We lack a rent-controlled, affordable model and stock because, in the late ’70s or 1980, Margaret Thatcher sold Council flats to private tenants, which was a great vote-winner. London’s Council stock was depleted from about a million to 400,000 units; there is very little available Council housing that is rentable at 40 percent or 60 percent of market value. Housing that’s available becomes densified, and it’s often in an unregulated rental market, which means that landlords can have short-term leases, so they can just keep increasing rent. 

When Great Britain removed its rent-control conditions, it meant that the private sector, a great majority of whom are landlords who own one or two properties, created an unsustainable rental model. It’s not fair that people can’t get rent-controlled properties [unlike], say, in Europe, where you get security tenure for five years in Germany. Here, that’s virtually impossible. And because it’s a private development model, it attracts higher-paying professionals who are paying a premium for their rental proposition, which also becomes incredibly — as an investment proposition for somebody — attractive.

Tamara Roy: It’s the inverse of what we would need: for a development to be 75 percent affordable and 25 percent luxury; instead, what is being put out to the market is 75 percent luxury and 25 percent affordable. In Boston, it’s 13 percent— a drop in the bucket.

John McAslan: The proportions are all wrong. Two [London] mayors ago, Ken Livingston, who was a very good mayor, had a 25 to 35 percent affordable requirement for development. The previous mayor, Boris Johnson, removed that requirement. The current mayor, Sadiq Khan, is talking about a 50 percent affordable requirement. No developer can build a scheme, given the cost of land in London, and provide 25 percent, let alone 50 percent, of affordable and still make it a comfortable proposition without cheapening the product. 

Developers will find a way around the requirement or will offer alternatives by having what we’d call committed payment. They’ll improve a public amenity and generally that’s more attractive to them than providing, on the doorstep of the private development, affordable housing, because they would rather have a gated development with nice sidewalks and landscaping, rather than affordable. Because there is this ridiculous perception that affordable means you’re getting derelicts and God knows who, which of course isn’t the case. It’s people —nurses, students, doctors, teachers — people who can’t afford . . . 

Tamara Roy: Construction workers, cooks . . . 

John McAslan: Who are providing an extraordinarily valuable service.

Tamara Roy: What you’re showing us is that Boston is not in as bad a spot as London because our land prices aren’t as escalated. But it’s disheartening to hear what happens when you let “the market will solve the problem” narrative run its course. It’s a hard problem to solve. One of the things you have talked about was [to ask] whether municipalities can build housing, rather than relying on the private market?

John McAslan: It’s easy to see what happens when you don’t have some sort of intervention. Look at a city like Bogota, with 8 million people. It had 800,000 people 20 years ago. Or Lagos. Those cities have imploded. It’s impossible to get anywhere. There’s no kind of civic structure. If you don’t address the problem of transportation, which of course is a key issue in New York and London and Boston, if you don’t get the infrastructure in place, then heaven knows what’s going to happen. There is a point where the attractiveness of a city like London or Boston as places to invest will deplete. To hell with this; I can’t afford to live here. I can’t get to work. Going to museums, parks, concerts; cycling along the Charles River — all those things I’ve come to enjoy are being eroded. I’m going to do something else. 

No single strategy is going to sort this out. It’s a basket of solutions. Probably the most significant is the one you raised, which is to get land back into the system — land that’s owned by the local authorities, but which is derelict for whatever reason. In the case of London, in [the borough of] Haringey, where we are working, it’s effectively public-private partnerships with developers and institutional investors to develop that land and borrow for it. Something like 30,000 homes are envisaged in the next two decades.

Tamara Roy: So there’s hope.

John McAslan: There’s hope.

Tamara Roy: If those 30,000 homes are affordable.

John McAslan: That is entirely to build affordable homes, mixed-use communities, schools, community centers — all the things we borrow to fund that. I use it as an example because we set up a design studio in Haringey. Years ago I visited the Mitchell Giurgola office in New York, with this guy Steve Johnson, who worked with Cambridge Seven [Associates] and [then] went to work for Mitchell Giurgola. This was a prestigious firm, and their office was above a launderette. I thought, Wow, this is amazing. Here they are in the middle of basically what seemed like kind of a battleground, doing great architecture.

Tamara Roy: When you say you had a design studio, you mean you opened your office there?

John McAslan: We opened a small office there as a partnership with Haringey Council, called N17, which is the postal code. There are no architects in Haringey to speak of, although it’s a borough of 300,000 people. We sent a memorandum of agreement, hired apprentices from the local college, and trained them up. The agreement was that we would provide pro bono services to enhance what was formerly an old funeral parlor and open a design studio and forum for discussion for regeneration. 

The reason that was so important was, in 2011, Tottenham, which is part of Haringey, had the worst riots in 20 years, and the fifth anniversary was this summer. So it was politically a very smart thing for Haringey to open up a place where postriot redevelopment could take place. There’s been huge investment. Developers have performed because the land is cheap. There’s a huge amount happening in Haringey, and we’ve been the beneficiaries of projects through this initiative. The idea is that you get this public-private partnership with local authorities who can borrow because they’re successful businesses and can invest in either replenishing existing building stock or redevelop on brownfield sites; there’s the possibility of up to half a million homes being provided in the next couple of decades.

Tamara Roy: You said it’s all affordable. How did they find that private partner interested in doing this?

John McAslan: Because they’ll find housing associations, which are government funded. They’ll get private developers. There is a deal they’re making (a) with the local authority, (b) with the lender, to have their investment repaid. They’re not there as charities, but they’re an affordable model. And the densification that you get — if not micro-housing, then smaller unit sizes, co-op houses, and mixed-use — means that you can crank up the density. The financial model works. The key is to find developers — and there are [examples] like Related, in partnership with Argent, who are wonderful developers here, and Stanhope, who are development managers. 

The private market in London is saturated; the land is so expensive. The value of property in the private sector is dropping. The high-end private sector dropped 5 percent in the last year. If you’re a developer, you think this doesn’t look so attractive. It’s expensive to build; the market is uncertain. It’s entirely international because no British can afford it. It’s Russians and Indians and Malaysians and wealthy Greeks and Italians. This isn’t a market for British people. The product we’re selling — big, lateral apartments of 5,000 square feet — can suddenly become unfashionable. So they shift very quickly. 

Tamara Roy: The car analogy, because everybody in America has cars, is that you’ve gone from the Lexus to the Prius. You get something more sustainable, less expensive, and where demand is huge.

John McAslan: Another interesting one is getting Transport for London [the city’s public transportation agency] and network rail, agencies who have lots of residual land, to become developers. Transport for London believes they can build 100,000 homes in the next decade. I think that’s pretty optimistic, but that’s bringing land back into the system.

Tamara Roy: Wow. By saying “becoming developers,” what does that mean? Do they actually hire people who then will develop?

John McAslan: Transport for London or network rail have masses of land on the edges of their railway system, which were formerly depots or land that was just bought.

Tamara Roy: We have that, too; it’s called Massport. They’ve got tons of land, but mostly they use it as income-producing. They realize they can sell it or give a long-term lease to developers, and they can make money off of it, rather than what you’re saying, which is to be a little more focused and say, “What we need is affordable housing. Can we use this land to a good purpose for society?”

John McAslan: They are looking at effectively developing a property partnership with private developers, and I think there’s something like 15 property developers who have gone on their framework, to develop their land with a combination of private and affordable, but where the concessions are such that the affordable element is significantly higher than the 25 percent envisaged. The private element is affordable because it’s on land that would be regarded as secondary. Its attractiveness is it’s close to public transportation. 

Next is looking at bringing back into use unused space above shop units, for instance, which is classic in Great Britain, where you have the ground-level shop. The thing is — and the [new] mayor here is probably going to be a breath of fresh air — to really come to grips with the problem. If government doesn’t do it, then in the next decade people will just drift off and say we can no longer afford to live here. We’ll go to Rotterdam or wherever.

Tamara Roy: That’s happening here as well. What makes you hopeful about what the mayor may do? He said he’s looking at 50 percent, right?

John McAslan: I think 50 percent affordable is probably a political wheeze. He’ll probably not achieve it, but he’s looking beyond the market sector. He understands that the issue can’t be left to the market economy. It has to be tackled differently. There’s all sorts of opportunities to increase density without dramatically reducing the quality of the place. It’s just to get land back in the system. Find a model that gets underutilized land back into play.

Tamara Roy: Do you see the general population understanding this dynamic about housing shortages and density? Because Boston has a community-focused planning process, and that’s often where some of these ideas hit a wall; even though they know there’s a housing shortage, the neighbors don’t want the char­acter of their neighborhood to change. So we get stuck. Nobody wants density. Are you running into the same thing there?

John McAslan: I think we are. In London, there aren’t vast pockets of land that are visible and accessible. There are tracts of land that are disconnected from urban neighborhoods. Also because the scale of development is usually midrise — four, five, six floors. The issue of scale isn’t so much a problem with affordability because to build affordably, you have to build relatively low in scale. Towers are for the private sector. What’s interesting, though, is you get educational institutions like Imperial College expanding their campuses on land that was low cost. Imperial built university student residences, I guess about 20 to 25 stories, in the vicinity of a neighborhood with two, three stories. Huge uproar. But it got planning permission because it was for education. This wasn’t private development. It had massive opposition [but] achieved permission because the view from the local authority was that this is a world university moving into a derelict piece of land, actually an old prison, bringing jobs, valuable resources, and 5,000 students into a neighborhood that was previously dead. The architecture’s pretty dreadful, very big in scale.

Tamara Roy: But there was a positive narrative about it, right?

John McAslan: That won the day. Sometimes scale and quality of building has to take second place to the regeneration of what was a pretty down-in-the-heel part of the city.

Tamara Roy: That’s happening here as well. There are growth zones the mayor is working on, near transit, in some tough neighborhoods. But as long as it has the positive narrative of having a higher amount of affordable housing than a private development would, it has more likelihood of going forward.

John McAslan: Exactly. For instance, we’ve been looking at the Baltimore-Penn Station with Arup for a possible project. It’s got about 5 acres of derelict land as part of the development scenario. When I was walking around there a month ago, I felt, well, this bit of Baltimore, [with] the station 3 miles from the city center, has got very low usage. But the neighborhood is now funky. There’s a college of art. There’s cultural stuff happening. 

Tamara Roy: There can be a new day.

John McAslan: That’s where density offers a chance to create vitality. Politically, you’ve got to be open to the bigger picture.

Tamara Roy: One thing you’re talking about, then, is trying to look at what is city- and state-owned land, which makes affordability possible, and how do they overlap with places that might be able to become dynamic corridors?

John McAslan: It can’t be left to the market. It can’t be left to developers. [If] developers are creative, they can see there is another model that they can make money and provide —  

Tamara Roy: Something needed.

John McAslan: A provision and a need, then they’re going to jump at it. That’s why I’m not at all dismissive of developers. I think it’s just a case of being politically open to their ability to fund and be creative about mixed-use development. Developers have a huge part to play in focusing their input into ways which also serve the need.

Tamara Roy: And empowering the governmental leadership to be doing it.

John McAslan: Exactly. ■