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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

When affordable housing isn't, really

Kaid Benfield

Posted March 1, 2013

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  housing advocacy (by: ONE DC, creative commons)

Many people who care deeply about cities, including yours truly, believe that there should be accommodation for all:  today’s America is increasingly diverse with respect to ethnicity, as I discussed in my last post.  And today’s America is also diverse with regard to economic circumstances. 

The neighborhoods I like best have a mix of housing types, from studio apartments to 5-bedroom houses, offered at different price points.  Some homes may be subsidized to be affordable to buyers or renters who qualify under income guidelines.  This creates an interesting mix of people, where the firefighter, teacher, or artist can interact with those in business, medicine, or government.  Residents may still gravitate to others more or less like themselves, but they also – especially the kids – will have an opportunity to learn that folks from diverse circumstances are frequently more alike than one might think.

Idealistic?  Sure.  But it also happens to be public policy, and I consider that a very good thing.  Life will always be unfair to an extent, but there are steps we can take to help make it a little more fair when it comes to housing.  Most cities have some sort of affordable housing program, and many have inclusionary zoning, requiring that a degree of affordability must be included in new development.  Some developers do a spectacular job at it.  The federal government has several programs that support affordable housing, including a significant tax credit for development of low-income homes.

          affordability map of NYC (courtesy of ANHD)

But, in a very interesting article in Next City, Matt Bevilacqua reveals that these programs don’t always accomplish their purpose, because the definition of “affordable” may not be suited to actual neighborhood circumstances.  Look at the map of New York City by the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD), which shows an amazingly large part of the city where housing intended to be affordable is actually UNaffordable to the average household in the local neighborhood.  According to Bevilacqua, the report found that “up to two-thirds of [NYC’s affordable] units built since 2003 are too expensive for residents earning their given neighborhood’s median income.”

This may be one reason why current residents – particularly renters – of revitalizing neighborhoods fear being pushed out.  If residents can’t afford even the “affordable” units in new and rehabbed buildings, their fears may be acutely well-founded.

  affordable housing in Brooklyn, financed by Citigroup (courtesy of Citigroup)

A big reason why this oxymoronic situation can be the case in some places is that affordability formulas are generally based on percentages of area median income, measured not just within but beyond city borders and taking in wealthy suburbs. Especially in an area as large as New York, and with as much wealth, the area-wide median may be much higher than if the median were measured for smaller areas.  (How large those areas should be strikes me as tricky, and I don’t pretend to have the answer.  Interested readers may want to probe ANHD’s 61-page report, Real Affordability, for more detailed analysis.)

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Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Switchboard and in the national media. For more posts, see his blog's home page. Please also visit NRDC’s sustainable communities video channels.

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Carol OttMar 1 2013 11:10 AM


"A big reason why this oxymoronic situation can be the case in some places is that affordability formulas are generally based on percentages of area median income, measured not just within but beyond city borders and taking in wealthy suburbs."

I very rarely, if ever, hear this mentioned -- and it's a constant struggle to find decent rental housing in many places, including my own city of Baltimore. Because rents are almost always calculated using HUD's rent rate chart -- the prices set for Section 8/Housing Choice vouchers -- ALL landlords have the idea they can charge the same rates. Not only does this rate hurt the poor, it's also pushing families that were once solidly middle-class into the downward spiral, because their housing costs are too high for the household income level.

Not to mention, it does nothing to revitalize neighborhoods -- if you have the money to afford a $1500 two-bedroom apartment or home, are you going to pick one in a marginal neighborhood with high crime and few amenities? Or are you going to go to another neighborhood with lower crime and more amenities? The choice, at least in my own neighborhood, is clear -- more middle- and upper-income folks are taking their rental dollars elsewhere, and some neighborhoods are quickly becoming dumping grounds for the poor -- which is in direct contrast to what the Housing Choice Voucher program was supposed to alleviate.

The word "affordable" should mean exactly that -- affordable, relative to the median income level of the neighborhood, not the entire statistical area.

AnonMar 2 2013 06:06 PM

Frequently, low-income residents of affordable housing properties do not pay the listed rent (sometimes referred to as "street rent") because there is a rent subsidy that allows them to pay less out of pocket and the difference is made up by the government. Without the market-rate street rent, that rental subsidy to the property would be lower and potentially the property could not be built with that lesser amount of funding. This should always be factored in. But it is not always as easy to get data on the rental subsidy as it is to get data on the street rent.

Paul McGuinnessMar 4 2013 08:03 AM

Thank you for the in depth article. This issue eats at me from time to time. Let me say that first there should be a reduction in the amount of government assistance/subsidies for rent. I simply feel that prices have become so inflated that the economics involved have become too biased toward developers and banks that real working people with a median income of say $35 to $50 K per year just can't make ends meet. That is unless they subscribe to the government handout/kickback to the developers and banks. I do not subscribe to the "assistance" and I continue to live in my Van. Certainly not ideal but rents in my area are way too much. $750 and up for a 1 bedroom. And no, I do not earn the median income, Solution: Reduce the kickbacks/rental assistance programs and structure the rent around 15 to 25% of NET income. Innovation will bring to light better building techniques and community participation as well as community planning that involves the majority of the people and not just the interests of developers, banks and government agencies that live off of the poor and middle class. Thanks for allowing me to voice my opinion.

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