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Daily Journal of Commerce: Designing for debt forgiveness?
Author: Inka Bajandas, Daily Journal of Commerce
Posted: April 16, 2014

Read the original story in the Daily Journal of Commerce.

Dylan Morgan is preparing to graduate from Portland State University in June with a degree in architecture. But then bills will follow.

The long and expensive process of becoming an architect can deter many people from such a pursuit, Morgan said. This is especially true, he added, for him and others interested in public interest design.

“I knew I was doing the right thing, but it’s just the financial question that weighs over people,” he said.

This is one reason why Morgan is intrigued by the National Design Services Act of 2014, which last month was introduced to Congress by Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo. The bill, backed by the American Institute of Architects, would offer new architects help paying off their student loan debt in return for community service. The program would be similar to those already offered to lawyers, doctors and teachers.

“Our profession has a similar long path (of education); it makes sense that there would be some way to get debt forgiveness,” said Morgan, a graduate assistant at the Center for Public Interest Design in PSU’s School of Architecture. “It’s a critical part to find more ways to bring more people into public interest design.”

Intern architects who have graduated from an accredited master’s program in architecture would be eligible to participate in the debt forgiveness program. It would be administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Participants would gain experience working for nonprofit community design centers and contribute to public projects such as schools, health clinics and libraries. Other eligible projects could include development of plans for the rehabilitation of blighted or deteriorating neighborhoods and help with restoration of historic sites, building retrofits to improve energy and water efficiency, assessment of building safety following a natural disaster and improvement of building accessibility for elderly or disabled individuals.

Perlmutter is co-sponsoring the National Design Services Act with Reps. Dennis Ross, R-Fla.,Greg Meeks, D-N.Y., and Gwen Moore, D-Wis. The bill was introduced into the House of Representatives and referred to the House Committee on Financial Services on March 11.

The National Design Services Act was a hot topic during a recent meeting of AIA representatives in Washington, D.C., said Robert Hoffman, head of the Portland and Oregon AIA chapters. The AIA strongly supports the bill because large student loan debts combined with low pay of entry-level positions often make it difficult for young architects to stick with the profession, he said.

“A lot of these (architecture) students are coming into the working world with $40,000 or more in debt,” he said. “You’d have this mechanism for students who are just coming into employment or can’t find a job right away to help serve their community.”

Putting intern architects to work on public interest projects will also bring design services to underserved communities, Hoffman said.

“That’s a really great way that young grads can come out and help communities in need,” he said. “Design is important everywhere. This would help alleviate some of the economic barriers.”

The bill, if it were enacted, would be a great incentive for more architects to get involved in design that serves the common good, said Sergio Palleroni, PSU architecture professor and director of the Center for Public Interest Design. Many of his students would be eager to participate in community service design programs like the one proposed in the National Design Services Act, he said.

“In architecture, you don’t earn enough to pay your debt off; it hangs around you for 10-plus years,” he said. “All of a sudden, you can give these people who dedicate themselves to community a viable life.”

Student loan debt was a large concern for Ashley Koger after she received a master’s degree in architecture from the University of Oregon in June 2013. She started working as an intern architect for GBD Architects in Portland last fall.

“It’s usually six or seven years of education, and that adds up quickly,” she said. “Pay really played a big role in deciding where to work after I graduated.”

Koger added that she would have given more consideration to employment with a nonprofit if the National Design Services Act were enacted.

After Josiah Henley graduates with a master’s degree in architecture from Portland State University in June, he wants to pursue public interest design. His thesis is about providing farmworker housing in Oregon, and he’d like to one day start a firm that emphasizes socially conscious design.

“It’s not the most lucrative path, so that would be a hindrance,” he said. “Something like this bill would be (a) plus.”