Affordable housing contest: we all win

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It was a novel move to scare up unconventional ideas. It's not often, after all, that an entity like the County of Santa Cruz is among the winners in a contest.

Altogether, California's Affordable Housing Competition paid out some $242, 500 in prize money last month to the best ideas for knocking down the towering cost of houses.

The contest was aimed at cutting costs for the Californians with incomes from low to a little above average who are getting squeezed out of the housing market.

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The winning ideas run from the social to the technical: Project MATCH in San Jose matches older people in big houses with housemates who can share expenses; Rice Straw Building Product is a board Larry Minchau makes of rice straw that outperforms particleboard.

The project designs submitted almost all pointed in the same direction: smaller living spaces and better energy usage. Most project prizes went to builders and architects for the best designs for cheap, viable housing.

Other common themes in the "government process" and "new possibility" categories:

* Ways of sharing houses, including plans for converting garages into quarters for in-laws.

* Self-help projects, such as housing built and owned by farm workers who formed a factory on their building site to make their own wallboard.

* Streamlining government, such as the Santa Cruz County system for making the affordable house-building requirements on builders more practical.

"Many of the ideas have broad implications, rather than just local implications," says Robert Judd, director of the Governor's Office of Appropriate Technology, which is running the contest.

The contest itself -- reeling with ideas -- is the first step of Mr. Judd's plan. The second step is to compile the ideas (including some nonwinners) into a book. cho With this, he hopes first to provide some "vocabulary" for people to use in voicing their "inarticulate frustration" with housing cost. Second, he hopes the ideas can offer some political leverage to people who see what other communities are doing.

The contest, in his view, worked. Over 5,000 applications were taken out and there were over 480 entrants. Of these, 28 won awards of up to $15,000 each. If the ideas are realized -- and many already have been -- then Los Angeles's Watts district may have eight blighted blocks revitalized with inexpensive solar-equipped apartments. And the California landscape may be broken up with an occasional travel trailer parked inside an unheated gree nhouse -- saving both housing and food costs.

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