From metropolitan cities to sprawling suburbias to one-stoplight hamlets, the lack of affordable housing in the U.S. has reached a crisis point.
There is not a single jurisdiction in the country where a person working 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year at the prevailing minimum wage can afford a one-bedroom apartment at the fair-market rent, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Other recent findings are just as sobering.
In a poll of elected officials, the National League of Cities found that the availability of quality affordable housing was one of the conditions that had deteriorated the most during the past five years. It’s no surprise then that city leaders cited affordable housing as one of the areas most important to address.
With more and more people being priced out of the housing market, cities, counties, and states must find new ways to produce affordable housing. A few of the strategies being deployed include inclusionary housing laws, local housing trust funds, special taxes, and incentive programs.
“[Affordable housing] is a building block, a catalyst, for neighborhood empowerment and revitalization,” said Columbus, Ohio, Mayor Michael Coleman. “For families, it creates an environment where they can have a better chance for success.”
When Coleman took office in 2000, one of his first actions was to establish an affordable housing task force. With different incentives and programs, including a housing trust fund, Columbus has added about 13,000 new units of housing to its stock.
Coleman heads the housing committee at the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which found that requests for assisted housing by low-income families and individuals increased in 86 percent of the cities recently surveyed.
There’s concern that the problem will only grow worse in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Wilma, which displaced hundreds of thousands of people from the Gulf Coast.
The issue isn’t just for families struggling to pay rent and for their elected officials. Affordable housing has become a key matter for many business leaders, including the ones behind the powerful Silicon Valley Leadership Group (SVLG), whose firms contribute more than $1 trillion to the global economy.
“The organizations and businesses that are involved in the Silicon Valley Leadership Group understand the intimate link between a strong economy, quality of life, and more specifically, housing affordability and attainability,” said Shiloh Ballard, SVLG director of housing and community development. “We realized that if we didn’t work together to build more housing the community and economy would suffer.”
A survey of member CEOs found that affordable housing is a top issue because the area’s high home prices are a huge impediment to employee recruitment and retention, Ballard said.
The decline in availability comes at time when opposition to the development of affordable housing remains fierce.
A glance at newspapers across the country reveals the regularity with which such not-in-my-backyard battles crop up.
As many as one in five Americans have opposed a real estate development project in their community, according to The Saint Index, a new survey that measures opinion on development and land-use issues.
“In all honesty, the job is getting tougher,” said Conrad Egan, president and CEO of the National Housing Conference (NHC), a national public policy and affordable housing advocacy organization.
“The frustration level is rising. It’s becoming more expensive to do what needs to be done. There’s a structural imbalance between incomes and housing costs, and it’s causing local communities to begin to think about how they need to approach the issue.”
One growing, but controversial, strategy aimed at producing more affordable housing is inclusionary zoning laws. In general, these ordinances require market-rate housing developers to ensure that a percentage, usually around 10 percent to 20 percent, of their new residential housing units are affordable. In exchange, developers may sometimes receive a density bonus.
California has emerged as a leader in this area. There were 107 jurisdictions in the state that had inclusionary housing practices in 2003, according to a report by the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California (NPH) and the California Coalition for Rural Housing. The number is expected to be significantly higher this year when the organizations, along with several new partners, update the initial study. Officials anticipate that the report will be released in the fall.
“It’s one tool in the toolbox that cities can use,” said Dianne Spaulding, executive director of San Francisco-based NPH. “It’s not a silver bullet, but it’s working. It’s a production-oriented strategy.”
Inclusionary housing can be put into practice without a large general investment from a city, she said. The benefit of inclusionary housing is that it does trigger the production of affordable housing and often leads to mixed-income communities. However, it is dependent on market conditions.
It seems simple to require that 10 percent of a project’s units be reserved for low- or moderate-income residents, but these policies remain controversial.
“Inclusionary housing has a lot of built-in opposition from landowners and developers,” said Arthur C. Nelson, professor and director of graduate studies in urban affairs and planning at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, who has studied affordable housing production strategies.
If cities include density bonuses as part of their inclusionary housing laws, that helps take some of the sting away, he said.
With federal and state funds diminishing or holding flat, local jurisdictions are also establishing their own affordable housing trust funds, which provide financial support for affordable housing.
At any given time, there are 30 or more efforts to start or expand a housing trust fund, estimated Mary Brooks, director of the Housing Trust Fund Project at the Center for Community Change, a Washington, D.C., organization with a history in community organizing.
There are more than 400 housing trust funds, according to a recent count by the center. There are 293 city housing trust funds in 25 states; 76 county housing trust funds in 10 states; three multi-jurisdictional funds in three states; and 43 state housing trust funds.
The growth in the number of funds has been significant. In 1990, there were fewer than 100 funds, and in 2000, there were fewer than 300, according to the center.
Housing trust funds usually have a dedicated source of public funding. It’s common for a state housing trust to receive money from real estate transfer taxes. At the local level, the funds may be supported by developer fees or a percentage of a city tax.
Highland Park, Ill., a community outside of Chicago, recently created a trust fund that is being funded in part by a new demolition fee. The city established a $10,000 tax on single-family residential demolitions. For multifamily properties, the tax is either $10,000 or $3,000 per unit, whichever is greater.
One trend seems to be that trust funds are getting larger. For example, Los Angeles leaders doubled the funding of the city’s six-year-old housing trust fund to $100 million in 2005. The additional funds were pooled from several different city agencies.
Brooks, who has worked with trust funds for about 20 years, said their strength is their flexibility in financing different projects.
The challenge, however, is identifying a revenue source. Supporters are often asking for an increase in taxes or fees.
Cities and counties are also adopting other unique strategies to help produce affordable housing. Some cities are creating policies that make it easier for accessory-dwelling units to be built. Others are streamlining the permitting process for affordable housing projects.
Nelson said he anticipates that more communities will begin to charge impact fees on new development to generate funds for affordable housing.
Cities are taking other concrete steps as well. In May, the Los Angeles City Council approved a one-year moratorium on the conversion or demolition of low-cost residential hotels. It’s an attempt to preserve low-cost housing after many buildings in the city have been turned into luxury lofts.
Many cities are trying to stem the loss of their affordable housing stock, said NHC’s Egan. As development costs soar, it’s becomes even more important to preserve existing units.
Egan pointed out that local jurisdictions are also exploring ways to boost density for affordable housing. “God ain’t making more land, but he’s making more FAR,” Egan said. FAR is the ratio of a building’s floor area to lot area.
Other strategies, he noted, include extending affordability requirements for government-assisted projects. In the past, 20-year restrictions weren’t unheard of, but today it’s often much longer. “We’re realizing we are going to have one bite of the apple,” he said.
Candace Stowell, chair of the American Planning Association’s (APA) Housing and Community Development Division, agreed that preserving the existing stock is a crucial strategy.
One of APA’s policy positions calls on planners to incorporate preservation measures into a coordinated housing strategy.
The APA also urges on planners to promote better balance between the location of jobs and housing. The association also calls on planners to ensure that new public schools are developed close to affordable housing or are sited to ensure future affordable housing development. Currently, new public schools are often developed where there is middle- and upper-income residential development.
Experts point out that one action by itself isn’t enough.
“They are all key,” said John McIlwain, senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute. “They are all important. No one is sufficient to meet the need. No city in the country is meeting the need for low-income or workforce housing.”