Living Big, Living Small

Organization and community: Cook Inlet Housing Authority (Anchorage, AK)

Living Big, Living Small from Cook Inlet Housing on Vimeo.

Habitable space is in short supply in Alaska and constraints like land parcel size, material costs, and the desire to reach deeper levels of affordability are increasingly impacting communities. Cook Inlet Housing Authority has been addressing these challenges by scaling down some of their one-bedroom housing units in ways that maximize financial feasibility and maintain livability.

In 2016, the organization partnered with set design artist Sheila Wyne to establish a dialogue with their residents about how small-space living might look within an urban Alaskan context. Wyne and Cook Inlet Housing Authority’s construction team built a life-sized set of a 280-square-foot micro unit studio apartment and also provided a kit of movable furniture that people within the space could reconfigure to a variety of floor plans. The organization’s community members, which included its own staff and board, teens from a local youth homeless shelter, and advocacy organization, private developers, and legislators were invited to the set for build sessions where teams would strategize on designs that took into account necessities, amenities, and lifestyles. The sessions were followed by group discussions about where micro units might be based in Anchorage, and who these units might benefit within broader community needs.

While Cook Inlet Housing Authority expected that “Living Big, Living Small” was creating space for practical discussions about layout design, they also observed participants who were envisioning these spaces for their families’ daily experiences. The residents provided valuable additional context for builders who might have just met the qualifications for subsidized housing, without considering the needs of the people who would be impacted. "While we thought we were creating a space for a layout design discussion, we realized after the first group participated that this exercise was uncovering much more," said Tyler Robinson, the organization’s Director of Development Planning. By engaging their constituency, Cook Inlet Housing Authority helped change the narrative that has faced housing advocates for at least a generation: the perception of affordable housing as government welfare rather than a human right, where its consumers should participate in design and planning.