This story is part of the Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to finding 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.
All she found were two derelict buildings and a plaque.
Established in 1910, Dearfield was once a thriving black housing estate.
“It was started by Oliver T. Jackson, who believed that in order for black people to truly experience the American Dream, they needed to own land and property,” Weeks explained. “I just wanted to see where this city was founded.”
In its heyday there were schools, churches, meeting rooms and shops.
More than a century after Jackson founded Dearfield, Weeks made a cross-country journey of her own to accept a position as executive director of the Dearfield Fund for Black Wealth. Like Jackson, Weeks pursues her own mission to help black families through home ownership.
“If you look at the homeownership gap between white and black families,” Weeks said, “you really see that the wealth created by homeownership has not been available to black families because of centuries of discrimination, particularly in housing.”
The fund offers down payment grants (up to $40,000) to black families in the six-county Denver metro area. Eligible are families that earn up to 140% of the regional average income, i.e. families that belong firmly to the middle class. The fund also continues to offer advice beyond just buying a home “to ensure they’re leveraging that asset to pass on to the next generation during their lifetime.”
The Dearfield Fund for Black Wealth is one of four winners of the 2023 Ivory Prize for Housing Affordability. Winners of the nationwide annual competition included companies trying to reduce construction costs and researchers studying zoning laws nationwide. Winners share a cash prize of $300,000.
“These distinguished winners of the 2023 Ivory Prize for Housing Affordability exemplify the spirit of innovation and the transformative impact it can have in 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 robotics to empowering marginalized communities to streamlining processes and bringing transparency to zoning laws, inspire us to push boundaries and create a more accessible and equitable future of housing for all.”
The Tribune spoke to the winners about their work and how they hoped to alleviate the affordable housing crisis facing so many communities in Utah — and throughout the West.
A little-studied theory of everything
“Let me just say it governs almost everything that gets built in the United States,” Sara Bronin said, “and yet we know very little about it.”
She speaks of zoning.
Bronin, a professor in the Department of Arts, Architecture and Planning at Cornell University, describes herself as “one of those people who’s just really interested in the laws that govern our built environment.”
Through a project called the National Zoning Atlas, Bronin, along with fellow researchers and regional teams of students, nonprofits, public officials, and academics, seek to demystify and catalog an area of law that can make or break communities’ efforts to build affordable housing .
But because zoning is done at the local level, creating an “atlas” of laws across the country is “a tedious process.” So far, Bronin’s team has cataloged zoning statutes in three states: Connecticut, New Hampshire and Montana.
In New Hampshire, “This zoning atlas has revealed major disparities in the way local governments manage housing,” Bronin said, “and it also shows that it’s really difficult to build affordable housing, including multi-family homes and apartments on small lots .”
States like Connectituct and Montana, Bronin said, with a better understanding of their local zoning laws, are already working to introduce reforms to make it easier to build affordable housing.
“This is a 1,500-square-foot, one-story house,” said Jack Oslan.
It is 100 feet deep, 50 feet wide and about 30 feet high.
The concrete shell Oslan is looking at is printed.
“We call it 3D printing because it’s easy for people to understand,” Oslan said, “but actually we’re extruding concrete into the shape of a brick, but the bricks are made up of wall length segments.”
Oslan is the CEO and co-founder of Diamond Age, a Phoenix, Arizona-based company trying to automate everything down to the intricacies of building a home.
He claims that there is a serious labor shortage in the construction industry, particularly in residential construction, because “nobody wants to do this physically demanding work.” Nobody wants to swing a hammer. No one wants to hold drywall overhead. Nobody wants to plaster the facades of houses anymore, and nobody wants to stand on a roof anymore.”
The technology Diamond Age is developing is designed to take care of the “boring, dirty, and dangerous” jobs and leave jobs that require fine motor skills and aesthetic judgment to humans.
In 2017, Oslan launched Diamond Age after witnessing his children trying and struggling to buy a home of their own. “I was upset about that,” Oslan said.
“I’ve been into factory automation and making millions of units that only cost pennies,” he said. The hope is that Diamond Age will bring the same efficiency and lower cost to house building.
Though Oslan says his company takes less time to build a home, it’s no cheaper than traditional methods right now.
“It’s more expensive today,” Oslan said, “but that’s the price of technology development.” He hopes the company will be profitable and self-sustaining within 24 months.
The Company is currently constructing a 43-unit gated community in Pinal County, Arizona, between Phoenix and Tucson. “Our intention is to build all over the United States,” Oslan said.
Smooth sailing is possible
The path to obtaining building permits to build new homes can be fraught with challenges for developers and builders.
The dance of filing, reviewing, and correcting bugs between developers and local governments can take up to five or six months.
Meanwhile, developers are losing money day after day while waiting to finally get the green light.
Based in San Jose, California, PermitFlow aims to make this process smoother through automation.
“We help you avoid all of these errors,” said Francis Thumpasery, co-founder and CEO of PermitFlow, “because we admit specialists and have software that helps us collect and avoid errors and do things more efficiently.” Method.”
They currently operate in metro areas in Texas, Florida and California.
“Our mission,” Thumpasery said, “is to make getting a construction project fundamentally faster, easier, and more transparent.” [permitted].”
Editor’s Note • The Clark and Christine Ivory Foundation is a donor to the Salt Lake Tribune’s Innovation Lab.