Housing is something I think we need to talk more about at Strong Towns. We touch on it frequently in the context of transportation and financials, but we don’t always get down into specifics, Today, I’m going to go back to something I wrote a couple months ago that seemed to resonate with many Strong Townsers and expand upon that topic to discuss affordable housing.
What makes housing affordable?
At first, that sounds like a stupid question: obviously affordable housing is housing that a person can pay for with a small amount of money. But there’s more to it. When we think about whether our cities and towns have affordable housing, we need to think about that comprehensively. Just because one corner of your town has some seedy blocks with run-down, cheap apartments where poor people can live without having to resort to homelessness, that doesn’t mean your town has affordable housing. (What it really means is that you have slums.)
AFFORDABLE HOUSING ≠ CHEAP HOUSING
Comprehensive affordable housing that actually benefits a community is not just cheap housing. It’s housing that a person could pay for within their price range (i.e. without using up half of their income and without going hungry just to pay the rent) and feel relatively safe and satisfied with. An affordable house is probably not going to be anyone’s dream villa, but it should be a place where you and your family can comfortably live during a time when your budget it tight, whether due to job loss, illness, or some other unforeseen circumstance. Of course, poverty necessitates making sacrifices like children sharing a room or parents walking to work instead of driving—but it shouldn’t have to mean choosing between a house with a broken roof and a rotting basement, or buying clothes and food for your family.
WHAT IS AFFORDABLE HOUSING?
Affordable housing should be housing that you, as a middle or upper class person right now, can reasonably picture yourself living in, should you fall into a situation where you had far less money. Many middle and upper class people have even had experiences at some point in their life (probably when they were in their young adult years) of living with little means. This is housing for that time.
In my own line of work, I assist homeless families in locating and securing permanent housing in the city of Milwaukee, WI. We’re fortunate here to have a fairly affordable rental stock, yet even in this mid-size city, you’d be hard pressed to find a studio apartment for under $400 a month, much less a one or two bedroom. (Check out this calculator to find out what the Fair Market Rent is in your own city.)
$400 is about what a person could reasonably spend on rent if he or she was working a minimum wage job forty hours a week. Unfortunately, the national median rent has hovered around $900 for the past several years. That’s never going to be attainable for hundreds of thousands of people. We will always have homeless and precariously-housed people in our country if we don’t increase our stock of affordable housing. Period.
Examples of Comprehensive Affordable Housing
Luckily, affordable housing has been successfully developed in numerous cities across the country. It comes in many forms--whether a brand new building full of micro-apartments or a vacant home that is renovated and provided at low cost to new residents. Here are some great examples of that in cities across the country. I’d also like to highlight Mercy Housing, which is a phenomenal, national corporation committed to building and maintaining affordable housing for thousands of low-income individuals.
Affordable housing also comes simply from thinking creatively. Maybe it means several people or even several families deciding to rent or buy a unit together to save on costs. Maybe it means renovating the attic above a store to become a small apartment for an employee or neighbor.
High quality affordable housing also often results from good private-public partnerships where the city government might offer tax credits to developers for constructing a certain number of affordable units, or where the government adjusts some codes and ordinances to allow for creative housing options to grow. I’m not advocating that we break the bank (public or private) building apartments that we’re never going to get a return on. I’m just advocating that we build modest, yet quality housing that caters to low-income people, rather than just fancy condos and large, single family homes.
One of my favorite landlords I work with is an older couple who own a handful of properties in one of the poorest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods in Milwaukee. On streets where most of the houses are either vacant, broken down or both, these landlords have committed to maintaining houses that are comfortable and safe. As they like to tell me, "If we wouldn't live in it ourselves, then we won't rent it out." They have also committed to keeping their units at incredibly affordable prices, ensuring that a family with even a very modest income could live in them. We need more landlords like this.
HOUSING AND DIVERSITY
Poverty isn’t going away, and most of our towns and cities will have some amount of low-income people residing in them, just as we also have some amount of higher income residents. This diversity matters in the same way that age diversity, racial diversity and other demographic differences are important for keeping our places viable. So, knowing that poverty is most likely a reality for some residents of your town, think about how you might provide options for people in that situation. Don’t you want your town to be a place where people from many different walks of life can find a home?
Rachel Quednau is a Midwesterner currently working to end homelessness in Milwaukee, WI. She draws from her experiences living in New York City, Washington, DC, Walla Walla, WA and Minneapolis, MN to help her build better places wherever she is. Rachel writes for her blog The City Space, and also for Urban Milwaukee. One of her favorite ways to get to know a new city is by going for a run in it.