Good Neighbors – A Design Week Portland Event Recap

| | Read time: 5 mins

Organized by: MWA Architects & University of Oregon School of Architecture & Environment Spatial Justice Initiative 

In a virtual collaboration between MWA Architects and the University of Oregon School of Architecture and Environment, we asked the questions, “what design tools do we need to create safe, dignified housing for all?” and “how should we measure the success of affordable housing developments?” Helping answer these questions were panelists Architect Dave Otte, State Representative Akasha Lawrence Spence, Director of Community Development and Housing Travis Phillips, and Housing Developer Rose M. Ojeda. After hearing from this diverse panel of voices, our MWA participants reflected on how we can measure an affordable housing project’s success.  

The courtyard at St. Francis Park Apartments, an affordable housing project designed by MWA that appears as a case study in Good Neighbors II

MWA Employee Reflections

Project designer at MWA Architects, Olivia Snell has worked on affordable housing projects including MWA’s Renaissance Commons

“From the beginning, I knew our Design Week Portland (DWP) event would be different. I have attended and/or participated in the DWP festival since 2016, including events that address affordable housing. Often these events include the same faces from the same firms, and they are mostly design-focused and less rooted in design feedback. Even in the early stages of planning, we knew we wanted our event to focus on bringing nonprofits and community leaders to the table with architects and designers. 

When a DWP organizer approached us in June about redesigning this year’s virtual festival to address the crucial issues to our community at this moment, I was relieved that our program was still considered relevant. I realize that our event was still chosen because, from the start, it was supposed to target a different audience than affordable housing discussions in the past. 

Rather than talk about affordable housing solely from a level of ‘good design’ with fellow designers, we wanted a diverse panel of speakers with different backgrounds who could talk about what actually makes design ‘good.’ 2019-20 Faculty Fellow in Design for Spatial Justice Karen Kubey brought research to the event that highlighted affordable housing metrics, and partnering with her class of University of Oregon students made the event more well-rounded. Student research gave us numbers and statistics to reflect on during the discussion of affordable housing case studies. 

Too often, architects don’t have time to reflect on how their projects may or may not be successful; they quickly move on to designing the next best project. Asking community leaders and nonprofits to join the conversation allowed us to receive feedback on why past affordable housing projects have been successful, and student research helped us see the metrics for how these projects can continue to improve the communities they serve.”

– Olivia Snell 

St Francis Park Apartments community room

As MWA’s resident graphic designer, Allison creates renderings for projects in design and directs the photography of finished projects. Her exposure to the different stages of design gives her a unique perspective on how we portray our work. 

Good Neighbors II has the unique opportunity to give designers the tools to evaluate what makes an affordable housing project successful, and to apply this knowledge from the beginning of the design process. The panel discussion highlighted a variety of challenges we face in designing these developments, from trauma-informed design to critical race theory. 

I’d love to see these challenges discussed more prominently in the case studies, including interviews or quotes from the residents after they have lived in the spaces for a year. What specifically about the design makes them feel safe, comfortable or at home? How are they using the spaces designed to build community, and do they feel like valued members of their neighborhood? These insights into the demographic using the spaces could give us a glimpse at what really works and what doesn’t. It would also be great to touch on how these developments have become community assets despite what the opposition often think. Highlighting these topics in the book could really help answer the question of how we measure success in affordable housing design.”  

– Allison Plass 

St Francis Park Apartments shared patio

With over 30 years of architectural experience, Diana Moosman has dedicated her career to community-oriented design. Diana is a Lead Design Architect and has worked on many affordable housing projects, including MWA’s St. Francis Park Apartments. 

My takeaway from Design Week Portland’s Good Neighbors event was the importance of meaningful community engagement. Our typical engagement with communities often consists of us presenting our project to a group of neighbors, and we may ask participants for feedback on our preliminary vision or present our final designs. The owners typically invite local neighborhood associations and community groups to the meetings with varying degrees of success. To solicit more meaningful feedback, in addition to inviting locals, we need to seek out experts in the field who have a vision for what affordable housing in their community should look like. 

At our design week event, developers Rose, Akasha, and Travis all talked about the need to go beyond these typical practices and seek out input from thought leaders in the community. This can be challenging but is important work when designing for minority and under-represented communities. Rose talked about one of her affordable housing projects for farm workers in the Willamette Valley and challenges she faced in communicating with language barriers, a lack of internet access, or COVID restrictions. It is important that we redesign our method of outreach and continue soliciting good input from the communities we are designing for. 

A few quotes that resonated with me are: 

Karen Kubey said, ‘Housing is health care. Housing justice is racial justice’ 

Dave Otte from Holst said, ‘Focus on where you can have the most impact. Keep some things really simple and save money for a few exuberant moments.’ 

I really enjoyed how this event came together, and the process of putting it together was even more satisfying.”  

– Diana Moosman

The full conversation and presentation of “Good Neighbors” Design Week Portland Program is accessible here:


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