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September 20, 2019  

Our Cities’ Housing Crises are Getting Worse. Is it Time to Offer a Cash Prize to Anyone Who Can Solve Them?

September 20, 2019

For generations, think tanks and policy analysts and departments of housing and more have all been working hard to solve one seemingly intractable problem: how to get more affordable housing in places that don’t have enough of it. And while dogmatists think they have the answer—build more units! rent control! inclusionary zoning! social housing! increase wages!–some days, it seems like we haven’t cracked the code in even a single American city, much less found a silver bullet to fix them all.

That’s why one Utah homebuilder is taking a different approach: skipping the pros and asking the public for their best ideas to put more roofs over more heads. And the authors of the very best concepts don’t just get the warm glow you feel when you’ve solved a devastating national crisis: they also get a share of a $200,000 prize pool—whether they’re a housing non-profit or just an average Strong Citizen with a great concept.

Okay: $200,000 isn’t a lot of money relative to the staggering scale of our housing woes, and a contest likely funded by a company’s marketing department isn’t likely to change the trajectory of cities across North America. But for Upzoned hosts Kea and Chuck, this story raised a few questions that we think any city should be asking themselves.

If conventional approaches to fixing our housing problems aren’t working, should our cities be funding innovation contests of their own? How do cash prizes incentivize imagination for fresh civic solutions in ways that traditional salaries, peer review processes and benchmark reports can’t? Is the very concept of a contest to “fix housing” flawed, because addressing many of our cities’ most urgent housing needs might look more like meeting transportation needs, or employment needs, or other interconnected problems in our complex human ecosystems? And why aren’t cities willing to step outside the box to consider contests in general—besides the tired old fear of getting sued?

Then in the Downzone, Chuck and Kea have two very different reading recommendation’s: ever-sunny Chuck suggests a Brief History of Doom: Two Hundred Years of Financial Crises, and Kea, whose fictional tastes usually run to the dark and bizarre, recommends a wonderful (if slightly out-of-character) heartwarming summer pick: The Lager Queen of Minnesota.