Housing Design Education - Saving Downtown Public Housing

Saving Downtown Public Housing: Towards a Blended-Income Community

Stephen D. Luoni & Shawna Hammon, University of Arkansas


Willow Heights is a 43-year old public housing complex owned by the Fayetteville Housing Authority (FHA) within the federal public housing portfolio administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The school’s design center was commissioned by a local foundation to study an alternative to the FHA’s plan to sell the downtown Willow Heights complex to a developer of high-income housing, necessitating relocation of low income residents to another complex outside of downtown. Using equity as a driver of decision making, the studio introduced scenario planning to organize reluctant stakeholders in considering transformations to the five-acre complex.

The objective to create a blended-income neighborhood flattens social distinctions between new units and refurbished housing units such that subsidized and market-rate paying households cannot be identified. Site proposals articulate a new housing landscape that supports healthy neighborhood functioning, including safe, modernized, and appropriately scaled mixed-market housing and a new stormwater management treatment network. Three planning scenarios were prepared, ranging in cost and level of difficulty. The FHA currently sets policy without much community outreach. Scenario planning was used to facilitate more robust decision making among an expanded community of stakeholders in partnership with the FHA, including the City of Fayetteville, housing residents, local/regional civic groups, and policy leaders with an interest in housing.

The decision to sell Willow Heights has sparked a larger community conversation about social justice issues, including projected long-term impacts on relocated residents. Through the application of design thinking that addresses healthy neighborhood design, value capture (positioning the public sector to profitably manage its assets), and social return on investment involving extra-financial values, the studio identified redevelopment opportunities while keeping residents in a centrally located neighborhood. In addition to design, students engaged various stakeholders in interviews including the Willow Heights residents, the FHA staff, and the city code and planning staffs.