There is no easy fix to the foreclosure crisis in the U.S., but the art world is offering one possible remedy.
A new exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York looks at five U.S. towns hit hard by foreclosures and asked a group of the nation's best architects, urban planners, ecologists, engineers and landscape designers to come up with ideas for reimagining the way towns might look in the future and the way people might live in them.
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The exhibit, "Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream," comes up with some provocative ideas such as closing off most of the roads in Orange, N.J., located near Newark with a foreclosure rate of 9.8 percent, and attempting to turn it into a walking community.
"The architects had community and its surrounding environment in mind over economics and money and all that other business stuff when they thought of these makeovers," 20-year-old student Amandine Borreman said about the exhibit.
Even though "Foreclosed" has been open for just a few weeks, critics are already questioning the practicality of the plans and noting that trying to redesign troubled communities does little for people living in a foreclosed home or who can't afford to pay their mortgage.
Barry Bergdoll, MoMa's architecture and design curator, admits it's not clear what impact it is having. He says his colleagues in the architecture community are impressed and glad to see architects trying to tackle an important topic like the housing crisis.
But he says many others are skeptical, noting that the exhibits are attempts to remake old and struggling communities and not doing anything with the existing supply of foreclosed homes. He said others say these communities are not just suffering from a poor housing stock, but are poor towns with troubled schools and not seen as desirable communities.
Another criticism is that the designs, even if they could be implemented, don't do anything for people being foreclosed upon. (Video: The team leaders discuss their thoughts on a walking city: tinyurl.com/7sb9k9e )
He says that isn't surprising, however - architecture can't solve the causes of the housing problem but it can try to find ways to make communities more liveable.
"Architecture is not going to provide mortgage relief," he says. "It can use this crisis to reexamine things and how we got here."
Indeed, one high profile visitor was Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, one of the architects of the recent $25 billion mortgage settlement with the nation's big banks. And on March 8, the MoMa is inviting a number of prominent developers to visit the exhibit and speak about it, including Ara Hovnanian, president and CEO of Hovnanian Enterprises.
The five communities selected - Keizer, Ore., Cicero, Ill., Rialto, Calif., Temple Terrace, Fla. and The Oranges, N.J. - were drawn from an academic report looking at the impact of the housing crisis on suburban communities.
Andrew Zago, the Los Angeles architect, who came up with a plan for redesigning a partially built suburban housing development in Rialto, Calif. that the developer had to stop construction on when the financial crisis hit, said the criticism of the exhibit misses the point.
He said architecture can't fix the foreclosure crisis or solve all the many economic problems facing communities but it can come up with ideas for making those towns less prone to economic calamity.
Zago's idea for the subdivision in Rialto, located in California's so-called Inland Empire, is to design a community that is not just one made up of single family homes. He believes Rialto should include a large swath of multi-family homes, reflecting the nature that in the suburbs more extended families are living together today.
He also proposes rewriting local zoning rules to enable a community land bank to take the title to some of the properties to effectively lease homes to families who can't afford their own mortgages.
"We are not in the position to solve the foreclosure crisis," Zago said. "We approached this as a what if scenario ... because a rethink has to happen."
(Reporting By Jennifer Ablan and Matthew Goldstein; editing by Dan Burns)