The politics of gentrification architecture

Are the ubiquitous 5-over-1 housing complexes helping solve the growing affordable housing crisis or just intensifying gentrification in the ugliest way possible?
A 5-over-1 housing complex in Austin, Texas
A 5-over-1 housing complex in Austin, TexasWikimedia Commons

Today’s uniform and overpriced housing blocks known colloquially as “5-over-1s,” or, more bluntly, “gentrification buildings,” are haunting cities across the country. Far from being the sole product of bad-taste, 5-over-1s manifest from a combination of complex zoning regulations and attempts to cut construction costs. A debate is raging as to whether these boxy buildings are helping to solve the nation’s housing crisis or if they’re just intensifying gentrification in the ugliest way possible.

The Irony of Bland

Five-over-1s began spreading in the 2010s when developers utilized a change in the US International Building Code (IBC) that allowed wood frames for buildings up to a height of five stories. A 5-over-1 is a maximum five-story building with a wood frame and a concrete (or any fire-resistive podium) base, as required by the IBC. The ugliness is not a matter of taste, but of cost, as the exterior is often made of cheap panels. Construction is as cheap and fast as it is flammable. 

A recent New York Times article, titled “America the Bland,” asked whether cities are losing their unique charm due to the invasion of 5-over-1s.  “It’s anytown architecture, and it’s hard to know where you are from one city to the next,” Anna Kodé writes. 

“I don’t think you can call the designers of these buildings designers or architects,” Denver-based writer Michael Paglia told Curbed. “I think accountants are designing these buildings.” 

The drab 5-over-1s share the gray aesthetic of Soviet apartment blocks, but without the affordability or ambition. In the classic Soviet film The Irony Fate, the main character, Zhenya, drunkenly falls asleep in what he believes is his Moscow apartment. After sobering up, however, he realizes that he unknowingly flew to Leningrad, which happened to have the exact apartment building at the exact address with the exact door locks as his Moscow home. One could imagine the same story playing out for a drunken Columbus resident who awakens in the same “gentrification building” in Detroit.

Housing Shortage

But the NYT article asks more pressingly whether these aesthetic criticisms even matter in the chaos of our dire housing crisis. The US was short 3.8 million units in 2020, meaning that there’s not enough supply of vacant units to keep prices down amid increased demand. It’s this shortfall of supply that’s driving a wave of 5-over-1s, multifamily apartment blocks that offer a fast and efficient boost in housing supply.

While lower construction costs theoretically mean a feasible method for building housing that is actually affordable, the reality is often the opposite. If you look at in Columbus, 5-over-1s dominate the search results, but their rental prices range from $1,100 to $5,000 a month. Since the privatization of affordable housing – switching from the ambitious public housing projects of the mid-20th century to handing out section 8 vouchers to subsidize private landlords – the process of building affordable housing has been delegated to the limited resources of local and state governments, forcing them to beg developers through tax abatements to set aside a certain amount of units below market value. 

Normalized Crisis

Most of the data and measurements used to describe America’s housing crisis downplay the fact that 600,000 people already sleep on the street without homes. The 3.8 million unit shortage doesn’t imply that meeting that demand would result in everyone being housed, it simply means that the market would be more balanced for pricing if there was a 13 percent vacancy rate. Current solutions to the housing crisis are catered toward balancing the market in hopes that prices will naturally drop due to increased supply. But when the housing supply shot up sharply between 2005 and 2008 there were more than 600,000 unhoused people in the U.S. In addition, 13 million were considered living in “worst case needs” in 2007, meaning they were suffering from severe rent burden (spending more than half their income on rent) and inadequate housing.

While cheaper methods now exist to build housing, those cost-savings instead go toward inflating profits. This isn’t a moral preference; it’s simply how the housing market functions. “The bigger issue is construction costs have escalated pretty significantly over the last two years,” Scott Black, senior vice president of the Nashville-based developer Bristol Development, told Curbed. “People don’t always understand the margins we work with.”

And these projects are falling increasingly under the control of a handful of big developers. The National Multifamily Housing Council found that five developers were responsible for constructing nearly 40 percent of the output of the 25 largest developers in the country. Many of these projects are given some form of tax abatement to subsidize developer profits. 

With such economic and political constraints in the U.S., the solutions presented to solve the housing crisis appear underwhelming, ineffective and visually unappealing. Five-over-1s have tremendous potential to supply real affordable housing to Americans, but only if basic needs are prioritized over the private profits of developers. It’s still possible to imagine a future in which 5-over-1s shed their aesthetic association with gentrification in favor of being dull beacons of affordable housing. But to achieve that future means to fight for it in the politics and uncertainties of the present.

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