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Can a Game Help Build Affordable Housing?

To break through gridlock on fair housing, officials in wealthy Westchester County, New York, try a new tactic.

Courtesy of Tygron

Real-estate experts and affordable housing advocates in two towns gathered not long ago to play pretend with plastic blocks.

This new way of considering development possibilities is no retreat into playtime, though. Its proponents call it a reset that can break old stalemates. The usual mix of zoning codes, environmental cleanup rules, and local skepticism triggers delays and lawsuits and inequities that leave officials in America’s “bedroom communities” sleepless. Development proposals move in stages, at stagey public meetings.  

Carolyn Stevens, former mayor of the town of Scarsdale, New York, makes it sound like a hostile ping-pong match.

“The process gets tied up over 10 monthly meetings of an unpaid village board,” she says. Along the way, she argues, citizens learn just enough that they can imagine the many, many things that can go wrong.

So housing supply doesn’t match demand—or definitions of fair housing that can come into play when a local government applies for federal funds.

Westchester County, which includes Scarsdale, lives under a 2009 federal consent decree obliging municipalities to find some path toward building 750 units of affordable housing, the vast majority of them in parts of mostly white municipalities where blacks and Latinos have historically lived in low numbers. At a litigious roadblock along the dig for that path, managers are trying those game pieces.

The story so far: after being sued by a civil-rights nonprofit, Westchester County signed a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to “affirmatively further fair housing” in 31 municipalities where minorities clustered or housing prices ran prohibitively high. The settlement provided for a court monitor to oversee moves toward consensus. But the laws governing jurisdiction became hives of dispute.

HUD and Westchester have taken each other to court over the question of whether a federal agency can withhold grants because it disputes a local authority’s zoning. (The appeals court for the Southern District of New York ruled last fall that on this matter, it could.) And the towns’ economics, with big lots and unaligned policies, made most development projects look chancy.

In this context, engaging a community to reach consensus proved difficult. One party familiar with the work of the monitor told me: “We were stuck.”

The monitor, Stevens, and other experts worked on a new process that searches for compromise—for hypothetical developments, initially, with hopes for eventual real-world use. It gathers parties around a table with scale models and, nearby, software from a Dutch gaming firm called Tygron.

The convener—say, a government—feeds data on building heights and zoning codes and impacted wetlands and such into the software. A group of invited locals might test how, for example, a setback on a taller building affects views and other variables.

In Westchester, which mixes small cities, upscale towns, and rural precincts just north of New York City, a choice of X or Y often bogs down in stalemate. Parties managing the settlement decided to try the game as a new frame for dialogue, with the thought that such dialogue could foster problem-solving.

Adam Lubinsky, a principal with the New York design firm WXY Studio, helped develop sessions in Westchester with the software and blocks as a search for new terms of debate. When the players muse on paying for affordable housing with retail or mixed-use development, Lubinsky says, suspicion yields to questions like, “What do I want to do on a weekend?”

Stills from the Tarrytown session of the design exercise (Courtesy of Tygron)

William Morrish, a longtime urban designer who’s worked on redevelopment schemes in New Orleans and Lower Manhattan, explains the genesis of the game. He planted the seed with James E. Johnson, a partner at the elite law firm Debevoise and Plimpton, who is the court-appointed monitor.

Morrish, meeting me in his Greenwich Village office, recalled that Johnson asked for background on deals that added low-income housing and made business sense. “We said: ‘Jim, there are no projects here,’” he remembers.

Morrish stresses that easy sites no longer exist. Federal subsidy for construction has run dry, environmental costs have soared, and politics have in many places calcified. The word “Westchester” may connote SUVs and landscaped pools, but the actual place abounds with underused office parks, fragile wetlands, and strict zoning.

Affordable housing under construction in 2012 in Rye, New York, as a result of the 2009 consent decree (Jim Fitzgerald / AP)

With that constraint (and a cue for you to scroll up to earlier names), Morrish worked with Lubinsky to recruit Stevens and another local expert to bring a civic cross-section to play the game, in what they called Community Design Institutes.

One session examined an underused office park and restaurant next to a steep slope and marsh in upland Tarrytown (near the actual Sleepy Hollow). The other explored a cluster of small businesses in the part of Pound Ridge that doesn’t feature estates and horses.

“People got different roles for the day,” says Lubinsky. “A developer played an activist.” (Roles appeared on cards at the entry table.)

Mike Blau, Tarrytown’s village manager, says he played an advocate and sensed a pivot after a little time in character. “As the pieces came together,” he tells me in his office, “we all started working as a group.”

By dialing up and down on building height and parking spaces, his Tarrytown group agreed on a plan for the tricky site.

Stevens says the software and the role-play brought forth findings that would otherwise lay hidden for months. “You’re able to change setbacks by five or 10 feet and automatically see what that means at scale,” she says.

This endorses what Florian Witsenburg, Tygron’s co-founder, has set out to do. The company services municipalities and utilities—groups that need to address a slew of participants’ mismatched goals and obligations.

“If you shift to a 3D world, you can allow the stakeholders to explore the data,” he says. “We use gaming technology to be visual, create an experience, and give you very fast feedback on what you’re doing.”

Once a partner like WXY inputs numbers, the software allows users to draw buildings and parks and boulevards. For Westchester, WXY and partners added physical objects to highlight the intangible benefits of density on urban design.

“If I see what a municipality plans in my backyard, I can run many iterations in one session,” Witsenburg notes. “Instant feedback reduces frustration between stakeholders.”

Richard Lyman, Pound Ridge’s part-time supervisor, gives more qualified praise to the game. He admires WXY and Morrish for their rigor and sincerity, but wishes the day had led to an implementable plan. “There was no after-project summary, which for me was a major disappointment,” he wrote me.

His town lacks a municipal septic system, and the tax base to fund one, with the result that Morrish reports eating in an Italian restaurant in the business district that serves “great food” on paper plates. (No public sewers, no restaurant dishwasher.) A grand bargain could clear enough development to underwrite the cost of public sewerage.

To be fair, the game makes no claim to produce actual deals.

The Westchester clash dates to a 1980 dispute over income distribution of housing in urban Yonkers. HBO’s Show Me a Hero uses this as a backdrop. But today’s court monitor has no Hollywood budget. The agreement caps monitoring fees and expenses at $250,000 for two years and $175,000 for future years.

In this pickle, argues Morrish, a game that plays with variables at no stakes nurtures problem-solving. “[Analytical] tools become performative rather than punitive—that’s the shift.”

To really work, though, this shift requires luck, no-strings funding, and an open tap of time. You need energetic, credible organizers like Stevens to draw a useful cross-section. You need facilitators who’ve walked the complex sites.

And you need to work through local, county, and federal reads on matters of zoning and justice to get to a plan that offers a workable compromise to most players. You can’t, therefore, put too much faith in a ping-pong ball. ​

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