Our Affordable Housing Policy Is Out of Whack

Affordable housing is a pretty basic need: People require places to live, ideally safe, clean places with access to running water and electricity. And yet, it’s proved fantastically difficult to provide in the United States, where land is a commodity and many people struggle to survive on low incomes. Consequently, the government has promoted all sorts of initiatives to get developers to build affordable housing, and to encourage regions to structure it into their urban planning. Subsidies, grants, and other forms of financial assistance are available to help either tenants, developers, or property owners with housing costs, with the goal of making it possible for everyone to have a home.

Yet, everyone does not have a home. Clearly, something is not working here, and has not been working for a very long time, because this is a persistent and recurrent problem.

Costs for some ‘affordable’ housing are ludicrous; for example, in a development with homes specified as ‘affordable,’ starting prices may hover around $250,000. Taking the rule that your house shouldn’t cost more than three times your annual salary, this means that anyone making less than ~$83,000 shouldn’t be buying homes in that development; and that cuts out, you know, low-income people. The people those homes are supposed to be designed to help. ‘Affordable’ housing may have rents starting over $1,000/month, which is not reasonable for many people on minimum wage, especially if they are single parents, and don’t have access to a second wage earner to help them afford housing and other living expenses.

And this just looks at the up-front cost of the house, which as we know is only a small part of housing costs. Utilities can be a considerable expense and affordable housing often isn’t built with energy efficiency in mind, because it increases the costs of construction. Consequently, residents pay more over the long term for heating and cooling; another cost that simply gets added to the tab without thinking about what it means. People in extremely hot or cold areas, for example, need heating and cooling systems to survive the harshest weather, and cannot simply turn off their climate control and soldier through.

Location also plays a critical role in affordability, and here is where urban planners have really fallen down on the job. Sprawl is a significant contributor to rising housing costs and yet cities continue to promote sprawl and annexation, adding ‘affordable housing’ to their growing suburbs instead of building densely and with maximum efficiency. Developers love this, because sprawl can be highly profitable for them, even though it may be an unpleasant sight for everyone else.

Density isn’t just better for the environment in many ways: It’s also something that can keep housing costs down. People living in suburban areas pay much more for transport, whether they are forced to maintain vehicles to get around or they use public transit. Their public transit options may be limited by infrequent service and sparse routes, which can limit employment opportunities, make it hard to travel to school, and create other problems. Furthermore, services like food, schools, and medical facilities are often not available in the suburbs, forcing people to leave for everything they need, whether it’s a carton of milk or a sound education.

Urban planning in general in the United States is in a bad state. Conflicting interests can make it difficult to set, enforce, and maintain practical policies that will benefit current and future generations, including low-income people who need housing assistance to have a chance at building better lives. The commitment for affordable housing hasn’t been followed through enough to ensure that everyone can afford to live where they do, and it also hasn’t been backed by sensible policy and planning to make the most efficient, effective, and appropriate affordable housing.

It’s a disservice to the environment, and to people who need affordable housing. Living in the suburbs can strip people of their communities and create a sense of isolation, as their homes become camping spots, effectively. Everything they need requires traveling, there’s nothing local, their neighbourhoods aren’t walkable, and there’s no reason to get to know the neighbours and build connections with them. Residents have to go out of their way to build community, instead of living in a mixed area where they interact with people, work in their community, and have access to the resources they need, from libraries to churches.

The resistance to functional planning in urban development is a sobering and unsettling development. As consumers push for bigger houses on bigger lots, cities sprawl more and more, eating up the natural environment while at the same time creating scattered, dysfunctional communities. For every row of McMansions, a little bit of community is shredded; these neighbourhoods often seem more creepy and ghostlike than places where people actually live, because everyone is gone during the day, because there is nothing there for them. Sterile home after sterile home marches by in an ominous procession, a reminder that this is what consumers are asking for, but does it really make the most sense environmentally or socially?

Modeling affordable housing on this curious approach to development is bad policy, and yet developers keep doing it because they’re allowed to get away with it. It’s time for a radical shift in policymaking, one that pushes developers to make truly affordable housing that also supports the maturation of functional communities. Dense, mixed-use development is the most practical and efficient use of resources, and it’s time to overcome resistant to density in urban planning.