In early 2018, Abby Ivory was working in impact investing—raising funds for projects that deliver positive social benefits—when her father came to her with a social problem he wanted her help addressing. The issue was housing affordability in the U.S.
“My dad said, ‘This will be a huge problem so how can we start finding a solution and channeling capital toward it?’” recalls Abby, who worked at the time at the Sorenson Impact Center at the University of Utah.
Her dad, Clark Ivory, knew a few things about the housing industry. Since 2000, he has been the CEO of Utah’s largest homebuilder, Ivory Homes, which his father, Ellis Ivory, began in the 1980s. Clark had seen the U.S. housing market swing from a large oversupply during the Great Recession to a severe undersupply.
"If you look just at financing in the housing industry, the last innovation was the 30-year mortgage." — Abby Ivory, Managing Director, Ivory Innovations
To figure out how best to tackle the problem, father and daughter pulled together an advisory board comprising a half-dozen industry leaders. The esteemed group included Chris Herbert, managing director of the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University; Carol Galante, a professor in affordable housing and urban policy at the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California at Berkeley; and Laurie Goodman, co-director of the Housing Finance Policy Center at the Urban Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
The experts identified three focus areas: finance, policy, and construction and design. “The general thought was that nothing happens in one of those areas without help from the other two,” Abby says. For instance, while modular construction leads to greater housing efficiency and density, government policy first has to allow for greater density.
Birth of the Ivory Prize
To fund and foster innovations in the three focus areas, Ivory Innovations launched as an applied academic center at the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business. Since 2018, the center’s flagship program has been the Ivory Prize, an annual award recognizing innovations that not only address affordability but also have the potential to scale. In addition to administering the prize, Ivory Innovations runs courses at the University of Utah, and it holds an annual competition, Hack-a-House, for students to come up with affordable-housing solutions.
Each year, the Ivory Prize honors one winner in each of its focus areas, as well as 25 finalists and 10 top finalists. For each of the three winners, the Ivory Prize comes with a no-strings-attached award of $80,000. Initially, the prize money came primarily from the Clark and Christine Ivory Foundation, which Abby’s parents formed in 2004. Now, several other funders also contribute to the awards.
In 2019, its first year, the Ivory Prize received 126 applications; in 2020, it had 168 applicants.
On January 14, the 2020 winners and top finalists will discuss their work at a virtual event held by the Terner Center.
The Ivory Prize: Promoting innovation in homebuilding
For Abby Ivory, managing director of Ivory Innovations, the prize aims to promote innovation within an industry that has long resisted it. “If you look just at financing in the housing industry, the last innovation was the 30-year mortgage,” she says. “We definitely see that people in this industry have an aversion to change and to innovation, and hopefully we can overcome that.”
Beyond the cash, Ivory Innovations provides a range of support. It serves as a networker, connecting and convening the awardees so they can learn from one another. “My favorite part of the prize process is pulling them together for this fabulous cross-sector learning that happens,” Abby says.
Watch the 2020 Ivory Prize winners announcement:
Ivory Innovations also partners with other organizations that provide the Ivory winners and finalists with grants and investments. The center offers help wherever it can—recently, for example, by helping two Ivory honorees grow their business in the state of Utah. Ivory Innovations even sends the award recipients a summer intern.
Abby Ivory has already seen an impact. She says Ivory winners have used the support to introduce new products that advance affordability.
The construction and design winners from last year, Entekra, and the previous year, Factory_OS, both demonstrate a promising trend in affordability: modular construction. A related trend, Abby says, is manufactured housing. “It has a negative stigma of trailer parkers, but it has a large potential to scale and a super-affordable price point—if we can rebrand it and make it look better.”
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For its third year, the Ivory Prize has added two more categories: It will reward affordability solutions related to COVID-19, which has had a dire effect on Americans’ ability to pay rent, and racial equity. “Historically, racial equity has been a huge problem in the real estate industry,” Abby says.
The submission window for the 2021 applications will close on January 31, and the winners will be announced in May.
“We’re trying to get more dialogue going,” Abby says of the Ivory Prize’s ultimate goal. “We’re trying to bring people together to make lasting change.”