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August 31, 2021
Susan King of HED: How We Are Helping To Make Housing More Affordable?
HED's Housing Sector Leader Susan King is the most recent expert to join Authority Magazine's “How We Are Helping To Make Housing More Affordable” series, where successful business leaders, real estate leaders, and builders, share the initiatives they are undertaking to create more affordable housing options in the US.

The primary cause of the crisis is simple, though. Housing has gotten far too scarce and expensive. As high-income people rent places that middle income people used to rent, and the middle-income people rent places the low-income people used to rent, then people become homeless.

In many large cities in the US, there is a crisis caused by a shortage of affordable housing options. This has led to a host of social challenges. In this series called “How We Are Helping To Make Housing More Affordable” we are talking to successful business leaders, real estate leaders, and builders, who share the initiatives they are undertaking to create more affordable housing options in the US. As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Susan King.

Susan King is a Principal at HED where she oversees the firm’s housing work across the Midwest. An unrelenting advocate for attainable housing, social justice, and issues of diversity, much of her work focuses on community-based housing access for people across all ages and socioeconomic status. She was recently involved with reimagining the historic portion of Lathrop, one of the last Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) Transformation Plans, converting it into a new mixed income community. Other recent projects include high density transit oriented high rise, Lake Street Studios, and new affordable assisted senior living developments in nearby Indiana.

Q. Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

A. I am a native of the Midwest, and I have enjoyed the opportunity to grow my professional career in the Chicago metro area since 1987. Today, I am a Principal with HED, a national, integrated design firm with a century long history and a diverse portfolio. Since joining the Chicago Office in 1997, I have played a leadership role in growing the firm’s focus on creating affordable housing environments and incorporating environmentally responsible high performance design strategies into housing projects of all kinds.

I served as the firm’s National Sustainable Design Practice Leader from 2011 through 2019. Basically, I took a page from the Hamilton playbook, specifically, the scene where George Washington sets the 8-year limit for Presidency. I figured that he was right, 8 years is enough time to have an effect and if we transition things correctly, the Firm will continue to move forward in this area. Sustainable Practice at HED is now being led by Daniel Jaconetti, AIA, LEED AP, who worked with me for several years prior as a Regional Leader.

My expertise in the areas of environmentally friendly design, social housing, and gender equity is nationally recognized, as demonstrated in many presentations and publications. I have spoken regularly at the United States Green Building Council’s (USGBC) National ‘GreenBuild’ conferences and The International Living Future Institute’s annual ‘unconference’.

I was also one of the first women in Illinois elevated to the American Institute of Architects (AIA) College of Fellows.

I am a past Co-Chair of the AIA Chicago Chapter’s Committee on The Environment (CoTE) and a past President of Chicago Women in Architecture (CWA). Today I am serving on two boards, the Illinois Housing Council and the Chicago Women in Architecture Foundation.

Q. Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

A. My personal decision to pursue work on public realm projects like affordable housing — a space where I would have an impact on people’s daily lives — was a big turning point in my career. This happened, I would say, in the mid 1990’s when I was working at a small firm primarily focused on manufacturing, speculative big boxes and some healthcare projects. I had been with that firm for 8 years and there is no question that I got great experience there as a project architect, but the type of work was not my passion. When I began my search for a new position, I was very intentional about the firms I approached. It took some time, but I eventually landed at the firm that would ultimately become the Chicago office of HED.

The other tipping point would be getting the right client at the right time, to bring my two passions of creating affordable housing and incorporating environmental responsibility together. (This will be discussed a little later in the conversation below.)

Q. None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

A. Wow, certainly not one person but many….

Q. Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

A. Again, hard to pick only one. But three books, I think worth mentioning are: the Rocky Mountain Institute’s A Primer on Sustainable Building, by Dianna Lopez Barnett and William Browning, The Shape of Green by Lance Hosey and Backlash by Susan Faludi. I would be remiss not to mention an author of many incredible books, Rebecca Solnit. I would suggest reading anything that she writes!

Since the first two are focused on sustainability, it is obvious why they are important. I will add that when I first read the Primer it was like a breath of fresh air, especially after trying to read the LEED Reference Guide. Similarly, I love Lance’s book because it was the first time that I had heard someone articulate the fact that great design and sustainability are inseparable. I know Lance personally, and I also had the chance to work with him. He helped HED set a course for truly achieving Design Excellence.

Backlash was also an early influence and shaped my gender equity views early in my career.

Rebecca Solnit writes on many topics, from Hope in the Dark to Men Explain Things to Me, I am constantly amazed at her ability to bring the issues of our time into sharp focus. Currently, I am reading The Mother of All Questions and in it she says: “I care passionately about the inhabitability of our planet from an environmental perspective, but until it’s fully habitable by women who can walk freely down the street without the constant fear of trouble and danger, we will labor under practical and psychological burdens that impair our full powers. Which is why, as someone who thinks climate is the most important thing in the world right now, I am still writing about women’s rights.”

Throughout my career I often have felt torn between working on both issues too. There are only so many hours in a day and there is so much progress to be made in both. When I read the above, I felt validated and energized to keep working on gender equity along with sustainability. Who needs sleep?!

Q. Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

A. Again, hard to only have one! Here are three:

1. All good ideas outlive their opposition…..eventually.” — Anonymous
It is relevant because making change in general is hard work! Sustainability, in all its many dimensions, always has naysayers and detractors. But, if you stay with it long enough, I promise you will get to witness that this quote is true.

2. “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” — The White Queen to Alice, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. 1872
It is relevant because it is about optimism, and we all need to have that.

3. “Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.” My Dad, John “Bud” King
I feel like this one does not need an explanation, but I will just say that he said this to me when I was young in the profession, I think at my second job. It is the one that I think I share most often with the people I mentor.

Q. Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the shortage of affordable housing. Lack of affordable housing has been a problem for a long time in the United States. But it seems that it has gotten a lot worse over the past five years, particularly in the large cities. I know this is a huge topic, but for the benefit of our readers can you briefly explain to our readers what brought us to this place? Where did this crisis come from?

A. This is an interesting question. From my perspective, it has a lot to do with prioritizing where the government puts our money. This affordable housing issue did not happen overnight and has been slowly building due to our not building enough new residential units on an annual basis. This isn’t a new crisis that has emerged, but when we were all asked to “stay home” during the pandemic, perhaps our collective awareness was heightened to the fact that not all people have a home.

The primary cause of the crisis is simple, though. Housing has gotten far too scarce and expensive. As high-income people rent places that middle income people used to rent, and the middle-income people rent places the low-income people used to rent, then people become homeless.

It should be a fundamental law in this country, that housing is a human right. I’m not the first person to say this, but I feel strongly that it should be true.

New York City for example has a “right to shelter” system, that helps people sleep indoors each night, at least. The rest of the nation doesn’t even guarantee that, though.

And then, when it comes to environmental friendliness and sustainability, if a higher quality product or system that will save money over time or improve productivity and health costs even a little bit more, it gets cut out of the design. There is a worry that less units will be built if there is an added cost of any kind. So, it gets sacrificed to the long-term detriment of our communities. We simply need housing to be a priority at the Federal level, and for sustainable design to be recognized for its value over the long haul and for both aspects to be financed properly instead of this ongoing race to the bottom.

Q. Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact to address this crisis? Can you share some of the initiatives you are leading to help correct this issue?

A. I have spent my career to-date focused on the important role that sustainable design plays in solving our collective housing needs.
I believe that sustainability is inherent in making something affordable. For any type of building, this is true. For housing infrastructure it is especially true because the home of an individual is where the financial rubber meets the road.

If you lower the cost to operate a residence, it is then more affordable over the long run. If you develop an apartment community that is designed sustainably, it is more affordable to own over the long run as well.

As noted previously, the industry is still hung up on the challenges of up-front costs, but as sustainable design technology continues to evolve, this up-front cost burden, though, is getting better and better. At HED, we are already seeing projects come in with smart, sustainable design embedded in them, reducing operating costs and not costing any more to build, provided of course that your base bid is not the lowest common denominator.

Q. Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

A. At HED we focus on delivering quality affordable housing and we can apply best practices learned in different parts of the country thanks to our national, multi-office reach. We choose to work in this important aspect of housing due to the significance of the need for our communities. We believe good design is for everyone.

We’ve been successful with recognizing early on that the sustainability aspect of affordable housing was something worth fighting for. Because of this commitment, we have been able to make some great strides in raising the design bar for better affordable housing in the Chicago metro area, the Los Angeles region, and others.

For an apartment project in Chicago, the Wentworth Commons, we were able to deliver the first LEED-Certified multi-unit apartment building in the entire midwestern United States. LEED Certification is just one metric to measure a building’s sustainability, but more importantly, it puts a great deal of weight on the importance of monthly energy costs, an important issue for affordable housing residents. This 51-unit community also happened to be an affordable housing community. That was a big early victory back in 2006, and we’ve been consistent in our press for the importance of sustainable design in affordable communities ever since.

Q. In your opinion, what should other designers do to further address these problems?

A. Get involved. There is only so much that we as designers can do in the confines of individual projects, but our role as educated advocates for good design and sustainable design can be even more important for the longer-term needs of affordable housing.

I personally have worked for the last year with the Midwest Building Decarbonization Coalition to make recommendations to the Illinois Housing Development Authority (IHDA) to create a higher bar for sustainability in affordable housing developments. Thanks to this work, a new Qualified Action Plan (QAP) is currently out for public comment which includes many of our recommendations.

Q. Can you share three things that the community and society can do to help you address the root of this crisis? Can you give some examples?

A. Be YIMBY (aka “yes, in my back yard”) instead of NIMBY (aka “not in my backyard”).

Show up in support for affordable housing developments. At a minimum, show up at public meetings and help support these projects vocally. Most people that show up to public meetings tend to be objectors. I am not sure why this is. I guess it is human nature to show up when you are angry and stay home if you are OK with the proposal. Anyway, our projects can get stalled and even completely derailed by this reality, depending on the public agencies involved.

Or you can call your government representatives to vocalize support for affordable housing projects and ask for their commitment to financially support this work. Whether a particular project is on the docket or not, our representatives need to regularly hear from us to understand that all residents in their communities think this is important — not just those with the lowest incomes.

Q. If you had the power to influence legislation, are there laws which you would like to see introduced that might help you in your work?

A. I alluded to this earlier, but I feel strongly that housing should be written into our governance as a human right. We have freedom of speech, we have the right to bear arms, but we can’t confidently say that we have the right to housing.

I would also expedite the process toward improving our building codes to require sustainable, energy efficient solutions for all buildings, not just in housing. This can affect long term affordability in this country, and legislation is likely going to be necessary to get us there.

Q. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

A. Oh boy, I am actually really shy, so I’m not sure this would be a good idea1 I guess I would say author Rebecca Solnit. From what I have already said, it seems obvious that we would be great, fast friends.
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