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Community Impact

Oct 22, 2020

Calling Out Injustice by Its Name—2020 Housing Innovation Workshop

Dist density

Illustration of 2020 virtual workshop

Distributing Density: Middle-Scale Housing for Sustainable Communities

Over the last three years, a team from the City of Boston Housing Innovation Lab, the Boston Society for Architecture, MIT’s Future Urban Collectives Lab, and MIT’s Real Estate Innovation Lab has come together to workshop solutions to a significant problem in our community: housing affordability.

On the morning of February 5, 2020 our team, representing the Boston Society for Architecture, Boston’s Housing Innovation Lab, and the MIT Real Estate Innovation Lab, came together to discuss a plan to host the third annual Housing Innovation Workshop. The previous two workshops, Developing Differently (2017) and Innovative Materials and Methods (2018) had proved to be invaluable in providing a space to innovatively address the challenges of housing affordability in the City of Boston. Thus, we knew that we wanted to once again bring together a group of dedicated participants to explore new housing ideas, this time on ways to facilitate the production of middle-scale multifamily housing in the city, but what we did not know then, was that the structure of the workshop itself would unexpectedly transform, and in many ways, for the better.

This year’s workshop was held July 7-8, 2020 and since the event, we have created a summary document highlighting the various workshop outcomes.

Our Experiment

This year, our team convened over 60 dedicated participants for a two-day virtual workshop to discuss and identify innovative solutions that can help facilitate the production of equitable and sustainable middle-scale housing in the City of Boston. Middle-scale housing can be described as housing that is not a high-rise apartment tower, but a middle option in terms of scale and density. We asked the housing community to help us craft a Request for Ideas (RFI), the first phase of the upcoming Housing Innovation Competition, and also to attempt to respond to our central question:

Can Middle Scale Housing Be Used as an Anti-Racist Strategy?

Participants sought out solutions and achieved the goals of the workshop goals by breaking out into topic-specific groups—a selection based off of each participant’s chosen topic of interest.

Pivot! (x3)

The Housing Innovation Workshop Experience transformed as a result of three key pivoting moments:

  1. We got specific. While in the past we have explored big ideas and concepts, this year we asked participants to respond to and help craft a specific document, the RFI. Our choice to do this was influenced by our need for early on interdisciplinary feedback on the overall competition process by focusing on and addressing a relevant topic.
  2. Workshop goes virtual! We knew in March, with the declaration of the COVID-19 State of Emergency, that we would need to spend the next few months crafting ways to make for an engaging virtual experience by taking our learning from the past workshops and creating new digital opportunities for this type of collaboration. This included the creation of a Living Reference Document, where participants could write their thoughts and ideas in real time, as well as template documents for each of the break out groups.
  3. Calling out injustices by their name. On the evening of June 9, the day before the original workshop date, we made the decision to postpone the workshop in support and in light of #ShutdownAcademia #ShutdownSTEM and the broader #blacklivesmatter movement. This also served as a reminder to more intentionally evaluate housing policy’s role in perpetuating systemic racism and what our collective role is in dismantling this system. This period and this workshop asked us all to confront systemic inequities ultimately brought to light by a global pandemic. Which also led us to center our own efforts on what was always the underlying mission: to collectively ideate ways of creating more middle-scale affordable housing and sustainable communities in our city.

Slides from the introductory July 7 workshop presentation

What We Have Learned

  1. We need anti-racist housing policies. As demands for equity in housing have resurfaced in the wake of this year’s events, during this year’s workshop we were able to hear from a community of innovators representing different professions, such as designers, developers, and community organizers, on the role housing can play in countering unjust systems. We heard from the various break out groups about the need for self-organization in housing, the need for housing as a place of healing, for more transparent and inclusive housing processes, among others.
  2. We need more diverse housing models. We must promote racially mixed and mixed-income communities by creating diverse housing typologies to accommodate multicultural and multigenerational groups.
  3. Public engagement must be reimagined. To further improve public engagement, community cooperatives should be incentivized to take the responsibility of managing public spaces and other shared resources.
  4. People are ready to do something about this. We not only saw participants that were willing to engage in dialog about this, but also built alliances with those who are dedicated to continuing to do this work outside of that virtual space.
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Timeline for the upcoming Housing Innovation Competition, depicting the pre-work around the Future Decker exhibition.

What’s Next

In the next few months, we will launch Phase I of the next Housing Innovation Competition by releasing the Request for Ideas (RFI). Both the MIT’s Future Urban Collectives and Real Estate Innovation Lab will continue to support this effort.


The introduction of a virtual workshop provided us with a perspective on how to continue to improve the workshop experience for the participants, as well as the hosts. For future workshops, we hope to combine the best qualities of both our in person and virtual workshops to create an even better experience for all. We are committed to continuing to build the partnerships necessary for achieving our common housing goals and we look forward to where this and future workshops will take us.

To read the summary document for this year’s Housing Innovation Workshop, click here.

Wandy Pascoal (she/ela) is a Housing Innovation Design Fellow with both the Boston Society for Architecture and Boston's Mayor's Housing Innovation Lab, focusing on exploring new ideas and approaches in addressing our city’s housing needs.

This blog post was originally published through the Medium account for the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics.