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SuitUp program exposes students to real-life business competitions, career options

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“Affordable housing is important because ALL people should have access to housing that is safe and in good condition,” say students who took part in a career awareness program based on addressing the shortfall of affordable housing.

Middle school students in New Jersey teamed with mentors from John Burns Research and Consulting (JBREC) to brainstorm and devise four concepts for making affordable housing more accessible. The project was under the auspices of SuitUp, an educational nonprofit whose mission is to increase career readiness for students in underserved communities through innovative business plan competitions.

Four teams developed unique approaches, “each with merit,” according to the authors of a report recapping the project. Their ideas, which were judged by JBREC associates, ranged from villages of tiny homes to converting underused industrial buildings to loft-style homes.

For the tiny home neighborhoods, students envisioned small lots, small kitchens and a half bath with robust community facilities that would feature showers, communal kitchens, shared playgrounds, recreational amenities, and open spaces. Being mindful of both land costs and the environment, their plan had provisions for using donated land from businesses or churches, and solar panels on homes, along with community gardens, convenient drop-off bins for recycling, and containers for composting and capturing rainwater.

The second team focused on finding solutions to high construction costs. They believed offsite 3D printed homes and/or components, as well as the use of recycled building materials could provide significant cost savings and expedite the building process. 

Converting underused and abandoned warehouses in their Bayonne, NJ, community into spacious loft-style townhomes and condominiums was the concept developed by a third team. Not only would this idea improve neighborhood aesthetics, but it would also offer secure, cost-effective housing choices for families. Amenities would include shared rooftop gardens and laundry facilities and proximity to open green spaces and schools. The students also envisioned local governments offering financial incentives to encourage owners and investors to repurpose dilapidated commercial properties.

The fourth and final concept is a variation of an apartment, with options to rent or buy. Prospective residents’ income must be below a threshold at move-in. Once in, they are no longer subject to the income cap. Students factored in affordable, low maintenance – but good quality – materials, along with first year rent subsidies or mortgage payments so money saved could be used to furnish the apartment home. Further assistance was envisioned in the form of sweat equity for tenants or homeowners who helped construct the property, and waiver of monthly homeowner association payments for residents who help with building maintenance.

In their summary report, JBREC researchers and analysts acknowledged that potential solutions “face hurdles, such as zoning restrictions, the need for subsidies or special financing programs and NIMBY (not in my backyard) sentiment.” They also noted finding workable solutions will require vision, motivation, and political will.  

As part of the SuitUp program, students experience solving a realistic corporate challenge and interact with corporate volunteers who coach them on marketing, financing, and strategy and help them with their presentations to judges. Participants who complete the business plan competitions have increased awareness of career readiness and the corporate world and “know that job titles such as CEO, VP of Marketing, Business Development Manager and others are now in their grasp.”

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