Cross-Continental “Global Classroom” Examines the State of Affordable Housing

Sep 10, 2021 / Updated Dec 10, 2021

New partnership between UMD with Nelson Mandela University to channel coursework, best practices to tackle global crisis

MRED's Tanya Bansal and Maria Day-Marshall, with colleagues in South Africa in 2019.
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MRED's Tanya Bansal and Maria Day-Marshall, with colleagues in South Africa in 2019.

This fall, a new cross-continental classroom will connect students from two sides of the world to tackle a very universal challenge: providing sustainable, safe and quality affordable housing. Launched between the University of Maryland Real Estate Development Program and the Nelson Mandela University Department of Building and Human Settlement Development, the new affordable housing global classroom will offer students a primer for creating just and sustainable affordable housing and explore the challenges of finding shelter on a global scale.

“This classroom has been years in the making and the result of a lot of really incredible people seeing the benefit of sharing ideas around this important issue,” said Maria Day-Marshall, director of Maryland’s Real Estate Development Program. “We are so excited about this endeavor and see this as just the beginning of global partnerships around issues like affordable housing.”

Rapid urbanization and a steady population boom have pushed the world into a global housing crisis. According to the United Nations, roughly 1.6 billion people live in substandard housing, informal settlements or slums, with another 100 million homeless. The United States and South Africa have also been marred by centuries of systemic racism, redlining and underrepresentation in the right to just housing. Confronting that legacy and the challenges of today requires not just collaboration, says Elizabeth Glenn, Chair of the U.S. Africa Collaborative, but the creation of a strong academic foundation rooted in multi-disciplinary best practices and theory.

“Housing in the U.S. and in South Africa, and in particular affordable housing, has often been challenged with the controversies of segregation and entrenched in concentrated poverty,” said Glenn. “The science of preparing professionals to work within human settlements technically exists in very few places around the globe. The complexity of our world and its housing needs demand a more thoughtful approach that incorporates equity and collective thinking, poised to rise to the complexity and challenges of affordable housing. This is part of the magic that makes this global classroom work.”

The semester-long course led by RDEV Lecturer David Jefferson, Clinical Professor Tanya Bansal and Day-Marshall will introduce Maryland students to the lifecycle of affordable housing development in the United States, from financing, history, policy and feasibility to design/construction and management. Concurrently, five sessions will immerse students from Maryland into a global conversation with undergraduate students from Nelson Mandela University under the direction of Mandela Professor Sijekula Mbanga, to explore topics critical to understanding the history and enduring challenges of affordable housing, but also to explore opportunities and solutions through shared perspectives. The course will culminate in a final project, where students will work in groups to develop and present a proposed development to their international peers.

“In some ways we can thank a global pandemic for enabling us to use the virtual space to bring these voices and conversations together,” said Wayne Draii, head of the Nelson Mandela University Department of Building and Human Settlement Development. “I see this collaboration as a small step to changing lives but a large step in the lives of the recipients, in information sharing and how we reach people worldwide and make a difference.”

The virtual platform will also allow students to tap into a global community of perspectives and expertise: real estate practitioners, government agencies, and scholars, who will share real case studies and best practices.

“This exchange is an exciting opportunity for our students and faculty to come together to talk about a big issue facing both the US and Africa,” said Dawn Jourdan, Dean of the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. Affordable Housing is important to all of us because it impacts our daily lives and the welfare of our friends and family. We hope this partnership leads to more opportunities for future collaborations and know the work will be impactful.”

The global classroom is an outgrowth from a 2019 trip to South Africa arranged by Glenn to explore public housing research and practice partnerships between South Africa and the United States. The U.S./Africa collaborative was formed shortly after, working to strengthen partnerships, educational and professional exchanges and information sharing through a number of planned initiatives, including a national student conference, housing symposium, and a YouTube channel, where students from around the world can talk about housing issues and share stories.

Day-Marshall says the fall course is a precursor to future courses that focus on housing challenges throughout the world, where issues within the built environment, such as informal settlements, are particularly dire. Relationships are being forged with academic partners in India and the fall course is serving as a model for a winter term global classroom in Cuba with Maryland’s Urban and Community Planning Program.

A kick-off event in late August drew faculty, staff and students from five different South African universities, a number of U.S. universities, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Maryland Office of Secretary of State, South African and US housing agencies, and professionals in real estate development from both Africa and the Unites States. An influx of interest after the event provoked Day-Marshall and Bansal to open the course up to students from other U.S. and South African universities eager to participate in the conversation. Without the worry of classroom space, it was an easy and welcome accommodation.

“We are so excited about this endeavor and believe this is the just the beginning of more partnerships with universities beyond Africa and the U.S.,” said Day-Marshall. “We’re seeing that there is sufficient interest to make that happen.”


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