Improving access to affordable housing is a critical challenge around the country and across the globe. It's also an urgent concern just across Nassau Street from the University campus, in the municipality of Princeton.
That made it a perfect fit for the inaugural Tiger Challenge, a program designed to help Princeton students tackle complex, real-world problems by providing support and nurturing their curiosity, creativity, compassion and courage.
A team of four undergraduates spent part of the summer learning about affordable housing in Princeton through research and conversations with residents, municipal officials, affordable-housing experts and Tiger Challenge mentors.
In short, Princeton's supply of 1,024 affordable-housing units — subsidized or price-controlled housing available through an application process based on applicants' income and other factors — is dwarfed by demand. The waiting list to secure affordable housing through one of the five entities that administer the units is long.
With those facts in mind, the OneRoof team developed concepts for how they might make the application process more streamlined and user-friendly. They are continuing their work throughout this academic year.
"Through around 40 interviews and other empathy-oriented research methods, we've gained the trust of government officials, the town's housing organizations, affordable-housing residents and hopefuls," said OneRoof team member Edric Huang, a junior anthropology major. "After analyzing all this raw data, we brainstormed where and how we could make an impact on this town and developed nine potential designs, which we intend to refine, narrow down and test in the real world."
Ideas include an improved online application, greater support for those on the waiting list and a schools-based community network — all designed to improve the lives of those seeking affordable housing.
"In the near future, we're looking to determine the desirability, feasibility and viability of these potential solutions and narrow them down to one approach or a combination of approaches," said team member Suzhen Jiang, a sophomore planning to major in computer science.
Christy Peacock, one of the team's mentors and the municipality's affordable-housing coordinator, said team members immersed themselves in the issues that people seeking affordable housing face.
"The team was engagingly enthusiastic, eager, sensitive to socioeconomic and political undercurrents, and compellingly interested in the processes that could benefit and impact the Princeton Affordable Programs," Peacock said.
Their work can also benefit many vulnerable Princeton residents, said another OneRoof mentor, David Kinsey, a University alumnus and planning consultant who specializes in affordable-housing planning.
"The team's effort to simplify and humanize the often bewildering and frustrating process of accessing affordable housing will hopefully help many who are less privileged," Kinsey said.
Rafe Steinhauer, entrepreneurial program manager at the Keller Center who oversees the Tiger Challenge, said the OneRoof team's focus on an issue that is "locally accessible but globally applicable" has helped shape the Tiger Challenge itself in the program's first year.
"Affordable housing is a hugely important part of our community here in Princeton," Steinhauer said. "It is also a hugely important part of almost every community in the United States. So while the students are focused on delivering things that will help our Princeton community, they are learning about this ecosystem of affordable housing that could be their life's work if they choose."
The University has for decades been a part of efforts to expand affordable-housing opportunities in Princeton, said Kristin Appelget, director of community and regional affairs at the University. It has provided more than $4 million to support a range of affordable-housing initiatives in Princeton over the last 10 years.
"I am proud of the work that the OneRoof team is completing, as their suggestions for streamlining and humanizing the affordable-housing application process are yet another way that the University, this time through student research, can have a positive impact on access to affordable housing in Princeton," Appelget said.
OneRoof is one of five teams participating in the first Tiger Challenge, Steinhauer said. All have utilized an innovation process known as "design thinking," which puts the people most affected at the heart of innovation. Members of each team received a stipend for their work over their summer, along with on-campus housing, and will continue to receive financial support over the coming school year.
Other teams worked on topics including how to make long-distance research collaboration easier and how to develop a safer alternative to the long spine board that emergency medical technicians, the military and sports trainers use to transport injured patients.
OneRoof team members say the Tiger Challenge has combined a learning experience with the opportunity to give back to the community they call home, at least for their four years at the University.
"For Princeton students like myself, it's only too easy to get caught up in all the opportunities we have on campus and our various curricular and extracurricular pursuits," Jiang said. "Involvement in this project is a way to give back — because we should want Princeton to be the healthiest and happiest place it can be, the same way we'd want the best for our communities at home."