Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Look ma, no comprehensive housing policy: so affordable housing suffers

Three big problems with affordable housing policy.

1.  The first is the most obvious, but people schooled in the paradigm of capitalism and markets can't see it, because they can't self-reflect.

It's that the market economy is designed to maximize price.   Developers are incentivized to make money.  Providing housing at less than what the market will bear is not what markets are set up to accomplish.

This problem is illustrated by yesterday's Post article, "In D.C., low-cost apartments disappearing at rapid rate," which describes an apartment building where the for market units are fine, and the tenants of below market affordable units are dealing with all kinds of problems with the quality of their units.  (The article has a problem, because the real issue is that the people in the affordable units wouldn't move to another unit and allow their unit to be fully renovated in one fell swoop.

But of course, why should anyone be surprised?  The property owner is focused on making money, not on providing housing on the basis of "need."

The quick and dirty response is rent control and similar kinds of regulations.  Such policies do have negative unintended consequences, leading to unfunding maintenance and limiting the construction of new housing.  (Although one of the justifications for rent restriction policies is that zoning restricts the inventory of housing and therefore allows for extranormally high prices.)

2.  But the real thing is to have a comprehensive housing plan and set of policies.  Housing policy is a subject that I don't follow too closely, so I am not familiar with US examples of particularly well done and comprehensive plans.  I do know that DC doesn't have one.

Oh sure, there is a housing plan, but nobody knows it exists and clearly it isn't being followed.  If it were, then the Mayor and City Council wouldn't be regularly raiding the Housing Production Trust Fund, the monies from which are used to support the development of affordable housing.

Of course, it's hard because in a market society providing "social" or public housing is very contentious.  The lack of consensus on how to address the problem goes back to the beginnings of the planning profession in the United States.  One strain believed in public investment--in the UK they started building "public" housing in the 1870s--the other strain favored a fully privatized market.  They won, and for the most part, the provision of public housing in the U.S. has been problematic.

3.  The third problem is that housing advocates don't think comprehensively and focus on just a little piece of the problem, be it housing vouchers for the poorest among us, ensuring that affordable units are included in new construction, the quality of public housing as currently provided, etc.

The biggest illustration of this problem was the campaign in the last decade for "inclusionary zoning."  What that does is require that in all new housing developments that a certain number of units be provided that are "affordable."  It got passed, although it still hasn't had much effect.

Even if it generates a couple of hundred affordable units annually, what about the hundreds of thousands of already existing housing units (single family houses detached and attached, small and large scale apartment buildings, etc.), how do you plan on maintaining affordability there?

Few people are out there advocating for a comprehensive approach, so the current chaos is maintained.

This is illustrated by the City Paper Housing Complex blog entry, "Affordable Housing Advocates Should Talk About Land Use, Too," which is about a recently released DC Fiscal Policy Institute report calling for more funds for social housing.

The entry makes the point that the authors of the DCFPI report don't consider how current land use policies and zoning in various parts of the city work to restrict the supply of housing, increasing prices, and that housing advocates need to address land use issues more generally.

Um, duh, see the second point, that the city lacks a comprehensive housing plan.

And we lack an organization or committed group of advocates focused on that general goal, and ensuring that city housing policies and plans are set up to ensure, to the best extent possible working within the parameters of a market economy, that better outcomes result than we are getting now.
Sure there is that policy and report dating from the Williams Administration.  (And it had some problems, in my opinion anyway.)

And the city improved the DC Housing Authority during the Williams Administration too.  (The Fenty Administration started f*ing it up forthwith, by getting rid of the nationally respected director who began the fix it process.)  And the Housing Production Trust Fund, with funds generated by real estate recordation taxes, has helped to fund a bunch of good projects.

But if you want a resilient, productive city, you need to deconcentrate poverty and you need to provide a variety of types of housing, to accommodate a wide range of household types, and you need to do that throughout the city, as best as possible, through portfolio investment in permanently affordable housing, and  a wide variety of other practices.

In the 2005 Shelterforce article "Gentrification and Resistance in New York City," Newman and Wyly responded to the findings reported in NYC that "gentrification" in neighborhoods there didn't result in displacement of the poor.  They found that the reality was more complicated.

Most importantly, almost half of all rental units were covered by regulations limiting price escalation.  Also, to stay in desirable neighborhoods, many more people started doubling up.

Of course, other programs support the development and maintenance of affordable housing at a variety of scales, which continually adds to the inventory of available housing, even as more new market rate housing is produced, and neighborhoods formerly forlorn become attractive to people with choices.

In strong markets, only by removing housing from "the market" can you permanently maintain affordability.  That has some unintended and negative consequences too.

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