Resilient Communities are the Foundations of a Resilient America.

Affordable housing and community resilience | August 2, 2018

Affordable housing is one of the most important – and often the most contentious – issues facing our communities, especially our urban areas.  The issue is usually framed as providing housing for those without sufficient income to pay market rates for it.  Unfortunately this disguises one of its major complications – there are actually two distinct populations involved, the “working poor” and those who have no jobs and are homeless. For the latter,  “affordability” is essentially meaningless since they have no income.  I’ll not consider them further here, but will take this issue up in a subsequent post.

The working poor have jobs and an income (often two incomes) but their wages have stagnated or risen slowly.  If the price of housing in their community has zoomed upward, they can no longer afford to live in the community where they work.  For example, the median household income in Portland, OR, has risen by about 20% this decade while the cost of rentals has almost doubled. As a result, many of the people who carry out the city’s essential functions can’t afford to live there.  For example, the police.  In 2010, only a third of Portland’s police force lived in Portland itself, primarily because of the cost of housing (Note the median salary of a police officer is less than the median household income in Portland – $56K vs $68K.).  20% of the force lived across the state line (and a bridge) in Washington state.  If a major earthquake hit the area, the demands on the police would skyrocket while the number of police officers actually able to report for duty in the city could well be much smaller (Just how robust is that bridge across the Columbia, anyway?).  And what about the garbage collectors, the folks who bring the food for the city’s food trucks, and the building tradesmen – will they be able to get into a Portland ravaged by an earthquake and help it recover?

The resilience of many communities thus depends on their ability to get those people who do the basics that we all depend on back into the community after a disaster.  The best way to do that is to ensure that they are able to live in the community they serve.  Several communities across the country are taking innovative approaches to increasing the stock of affordable housing. But it is helpful to understand what constrains the supply of affordable housing to provide a context for solutions.

In a recent speech to the board of the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard, HUD Secretary Ben Carson highlighted “time-consuming approval processes, restrictive or exclusionary zoning ordinances, unnecessary fees or taxes, and excessive land development standards” as “impediments to developing affordable housing stock.”  Work by the Center has shown that about one-sixth of US households are cost-burdened (spending one-third of their income on housing) and of these, half – about 11 million households  – are severely cost-burdened (spending half or more of their income on housing).  And, of course, NIMBY always rears its ugly head when specific affordable housing projects are proposed.

As indicated above, affordability depends on location.  Wages certainly are also a part of the equation.  But in many growth-oriented communities – Orlando, Portland, San Francisco, for example – it is the constraints on new construction that drive costs up and inhibit developers from building affordable housing.

Communities are using a variety of strategies to increase the stock of affordable housing.

•  Refine zoning and land use restrictions to reflect current conditions.  For example, Seattle has reduced required parking for affordable developments in areas near mass transit.  The state of California has passed legislation to encourage building of units significantly smaller than typical dwellings and thus more affordable.  Portland has developed new regulations that allow smaller lots.

•  Streamline permitting processes.  Often, the process of obtaining permits can drag out for months or even years.  Since the return on investment for affordable housing is lower than for high rise condos, developers tend to shy away from processes that can be dragged out, especially by NIMBY concerns.  The city of San Diego has developed an expedited permit process for projects that meet specific criteria.  Portland’s regulations mentioned above rely on the use of preapproved building plans that speed permitting.

•  Provide incentives to build affordable housing.  For example, developers are required to pay a fee to take advantage of San Diego’s expedited permitting process.  However, if a development produces 100% affordable housing, the fee is waived. Orlando has taken a different approach based on inclusionary zones to encourage development of affordable housing.

Because state laws and local regulations vary so widely across the country, communities have to forge their own policies that will work for them in their context.  However, community resilience provides a strong motive for having sufficient affordable housing.  After Katrina, a great deal of money flowed into the Gulf Coast.  However, New Orleans’ recovery, in particular, was hampered by the lack of building professionals to do the rebuilding.  The city’s initial response to the crisis was also severely hobbled because so many police officers couldn’t make it back into the city after securing their families.  Recovering from disaster takes capital; not just financial but human.  Money provides the bricks and boards, but it’s people that use them to repair or rebuild. Having enough affordable housing for those we rely on during and after a crisis – for both response and recovery – is an important component of community resilience.

For those interested in learning more about affordable housing, let me suggest HUD’s Evidence Matters Spring 2018 Newsletter.  And please join the conversation on Twitter—read the blog and follow CARRI at @ResilientUS.