Improving access to affordable housing is a critical challenge around the country and across the globe. It’s also an urgent concern across Nassau Street from the University campus in the municipality of Princeton.

That made affordable housing 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 called OneRoof spent part of last 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 can stretch to many years. Without the ability to actually increase the stock of housing, the OneRoof team looked for creative ways to help people navigate the process and access other social services along the way.

“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.

After uncovering gaps in information, the team is seeking to improve communications, not only between administrators and applicants but also between the participating agencies. One aim is to facilitate a more coordinated approach to helping applicants avoid problems with their current housing, such as issues with landlords or utilities, and to access other local social services.

“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.

Rafe Steinhauer ’07, 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 also is 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 OneRoof project fits into the University’s long-standing 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 past 10 years.

OneRoof is one of five teams participating in the first Tiger Challenge, Steinhauer said. All have used 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 during the 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 organizations 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 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 – 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.”

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