By Karen Guzman
Affordable housing was the topic of conversation one morning in November when students and faculty convened in a Yale SOM classroom to review progress made in a new interdisciplinary course.
Housing Connecticut: Developing Healthy and Sustainable Neighborhoods is more hands-on clinic than classroom instruction. In this novel course, student teams from Yale SOM, the Yale School of Architecture, and Yale Law School work with local developers on proposals to increase affordable housing in New Haven neighborhoods.
The Yale Urban Design Workshop helped organize the clinic, which was taught by faculty from the three graduate schools.
Midway through the semester, the student teams, each comprising a mixture of students from the participating schools, gathered to make status-update presentations. Representatives from neighborhood organizations, as well as officials from the Connecticut State Department of Housing, the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, and the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority, joined the students and faculty to provide feedback.
“We were asked by the Connecticut commissioner of housing to think, with our students, about how we could create housing more affordably and faster—not only in New Haven but across the state,” said Andrei Harwell, senior critic in architecture, who is coordinating the faculty role in the course. “There is some funding available at the state level for these projects, so there is potential for them to move quickly toward implementation.”
Brandon Jones ’23 and Khayla Smith ’23 are the Yale SOM members of a team working with Beulah Land Development Corp., a faith-based organization working to revitalize New Haven’s Newhallville area. “In New Haven there’s a severe need for affordable, two- to three-bedroom rental apartments,” Jones said.
Working with their nonprofit housing developer clients, each student team was tasked with producing a comprehensive project proposal supported by data and mapping, a legal framework, a cost estimate and proposed financing, as well as architectural designs and visualizations. Two teams of students worked on two different Newhallville-focused proposals, and a third team focused on Fair Haven.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has defined these neighborhoods as “Racially Concentrated Areas of Poverty.” The neighborhoods comprise some of the most cost-burdened, low-income, overcrowded households in the state, according to the course syllabus.
In their proposals, says Kate Cooney, senior lecturer in social enterprise and management at Yale SOM, students had to weigh development issues including environmental justice, sustainability, resilience, social equity, identity, food scarcity, mobility, and health.
“The clinic gives them an opportunity to understand how their particular expertise, whether it be financial, legal, or architectural, contributes to the overall process of producing affordable housing,” she says.
But first, she adds, they had to grapple with site control—whether the partner organizations could feasibly acquire sites for development.
“While the teams approached their work differently, all the proposals at mid-review reflected multiple efforts to gather reliable information about site availability,” Cooney says. “Final projects will need to include both individual, site-specific development projects and a vision for how they’ll connect to ongoing, broader neighborhood revitalization efforts.”
Ellie Wachtel ’24 served as Cooney’s teaching assistant. “This class has been a fantastic introduction to the dynamics of local politics, New Haven history, and Connecticut housing policies,” she says. “It’s been very exciting to watch the students dive in and produce innovative ideas.”
Robby Mulcahy ’23 has a background in property development and hopes to continue that work after he graduates from Yale SOM.
“The structure of the clinic has taught me a lot about how to engage with clients, partners, and community members, and just how inter-connected and inter-dependent the numerous actors in the housing market truly are,” Mulcahy says. “It’s been a crash course in the dynamics of New Haven’s affordable housing market in particular.”
Professor of Architecture and Urbanism Alan Plattus says he received numerous positive comments from students and developers after the mid-term review.
“Real research and project-based collaboration is usually the domain of faculty members and post-docs, so having a structured, for-credit course based on teams of students from different Yale professional schools is a breakthrough,” he says. “Our architectural students have learned a great deal from the law and management students and their different, but complementary, ways of working with clients.”
Law students, too, have benefitted from the collaboration, says Anika Singh Lemar, clinical professor of law.
“They’re forced out of their silos to engage with how financial issues can affect the resolution of a legal problem, and how the law complicates possible solutions to architectural design issues,” Singh Lemar says. “A key lawyering skill is communicating legal concepts to non-lawyers, whether they’re clients, regulators, or other professionals.”
At the semester’s start, the course was oversubscribed, and students had to be turned away. Students from the Yale School of Public Health and the Yale School of the Environment also showed initial interest. “We hope we can include them in future years,” Singh Lemar says.
MBA student Dahlia Leffell ’23 appreciated the chance to put the skills she’s learned in the classroom into practice.
“This course offers a full picture of the development process, and it’s been a fantastic complement to the rest of my coursework at SOM,” Leffell says. “It’s been exciting to envision what a neighborhood so close to home could become, while also gaining an understanding of the real roadblocks that make affordable housing such a challenge.”