Affordable, Mid-Term, Housing for All

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I have been involved in affordable housing for nearly two decades, and most of my career has been spent in New York City. The creation of affordable housing has been a focus of various municipal administrations since the 1970s. State Senator MacNeil Mitchell and Assemblyman Alfred Lama created the Mitchell-Lama program, which, in coordination with HUD, created thousands of apartments for middle class families in New York City. In the 1980s, Mayor Koch created an ambitious affordable housing program to reverse the blight that had impacted many New York City neighborhoods. In the last decade, Mayor Bloomberg created or preserved more than 165,000 units of affordable housing during his tenure as mayor. New York's newest mayor, Mayor De Blasio, intends to improve on this legacy by creating or preserving 200,000 units in ten years. Yet, the prospect of finding affordable housing in New York City is harder than it has ever been.

The problem is not just confined to New York City. HUD Secretary Shawn Donovan recently declared that the United States faces "the worst rental affordability crisis that this country has ever known." A recent article in the New York Times, identified 90 cities which were unaffordable to a family making median income. The question: Why have the best efforts of mayors in New York City and other cities failed to stem the tide against the lack of affordable housing?

The answer involves basic economic theory. Although various municipal and federal administrations have tried to address the supply of affordable housing, no one is addressing the demand for affordable housing. In 1990, New York City had seven million people. By 2015, New York City will have approximately 8.5 million residents. In other words, imagine if the entire city of Philadelphia decided to move to New York City. This significant immigration has not been met with a corresponding creation of residential housing. 

Conversely, the problem has only been acerbated by the efforts of various mayors in New York City to create more housing and address the blight that impacted New York City from the 1970s to the 2000s. Mayor Koch's ambitious housing efforts and Mayor Giuliani's successful effort to lower crime made New York more welcoming and hospitable to native born and foreign born immigrants, not less. By making New York City better, they stoked demand for affordable housing far beyond their ability to create it.

Affordable housing does exist in many parts of America. Affordable housing even exists in New York City. Another recent article in the New York Times chronicled housing in the South Bronx. Although neighborhoods there do not have many of the amenities found in other parts of New York City and crime continues to be an issue, rental rates are affordable on a median salary in New York City.

The lack of affordable housing in certain cities or certain parts of certain cities highlights a deeper policy debate. Should municipalities or the federal government subsidize people to live in highly desirable cities or highly desirable neighborhoods in certain cities? Should living in a middle class neighborhood in New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, or any other growing American city be a right or a privilege—the latter no different than being able to shop at an expensive department store or flying first class? Everyone wants to fly first class, but only those who can afford it can.

As a proponent of affordable housing for nearly my entire professional life, I always thought that affordable housing was a right for every American citizen. However, the sheer lack of progress in creating affordable housing and paradoxical decrease in affordability based on "successful" efforts to create better neighborhoods has made me rethink my efforts and beliefs. Specifically, why should residents be allowed to live in affordable housing indefinitely?

Affordable housing is created by leveraging municipal or federal housing subsidies to create housing for families unable to afford market rate housing. Multiple studies have shown that the demand of affordable housing far exceeds the resources available. Yet, low-income residents are allowed to live in affordable housing indefinitely. This has created a lottery mentality for low-income residents in highly desirable cities. If a resident is lucky enough to qualify for a low-income residence, they are entitled to a lifetime benefit from the federal or municipal government. If not, that resident is forced to identify less desirable housing in a different part of the city, live in overcrowded housing, or move to a different city altogether. Why should certain low-income residents "win" affordable apartments while other less fortunate, low-income residents suffer?

Because the supply of affordable housing cannot possibly meet the demand of affordable housing in certain highly desirable municipalities, why can't the limited supply be extended to more residents? In other words, why should certain low-income residents receive a permanent benefit while others receive nothing? Affordable housing should be a temporary benefit that will allow more low-income residents to enjoy newly developed affordable housing. Low-income residents should be provided midterm housing or affordable housing units on a non-permanent basis.

For example, Mitchel Lama housing has existed for approximately 40 years. If families can prove the continuous occupancy by a family member, those families could be the only family to ever occupy that apartment. I propose a five-year limit on the amount of time low-income families can live in affordable housing. During a similar 40-year period, eight families, instead of one, could receive the benefit of suitable housing.

Clearly, limiting the time families can live in affordable housing will cause disruption in certain neighborhoods. I, along with my immediate family, grew up in affordable housing in New York City. The sense of community created by our, and others', ability to live in this affordable housing development was significant. However, our family's long-term residency in this apartment prevented other needy families in New York City from living in standard and new housing. Affordable housing and neighborhood development should be compatible goals. Yet limited resources should make all of us ask which goal is more important. Limited resources and increasing demand for those resources require new approaches to solving problems.

Creating mid-term affordable housing for low-income families for a discrete amount of time will extend the benefit of affordable housing to more families.

Edward Poteat is an adjunct professor at Columbia University and author of the Fiscal Cliff, chronicling the plight facing many older American Cities. Edward has also developed affordable housing in the Metro New York market for nearly two decades.

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