Developing New Housing Options for Changing Population

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What are the most pressing issues in housing policy today?

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Our work at SAHF centers on affordable multifamily housing, so I will leave it to others to focus on the foreclosure crisis. In the everyday world, our low and moderate income citizens simply cannot afford rents in most markets, the supply of affordable apartments is declining, and the search for affordable rents drives transportation costs to claim increasing shares of household income. Wage bifurcation in our society means that, at least in the foreseeable future, more and more Americans will have incomes that cannot support rents high enough to pay operating costs and debt service. Meanwhile, only about a quarter of income-eligible Americans receive housing assistance.

Although by many measures our nation is over-housed in large single family homes, our land use policies—mainly at the local level—frustrate the informal rental solutions that could house many of us more affordably and densely.  In the names of health, safety, and planning, but pushing relentlessly to a single family model, we have turned our back on solutions that worked for decades: rooming houses, student and granny flats, and other forms of shared accommodation. 

We've fallen into the trap of thinking generically about affordable rental housing, failing to address the diversity of needs and opportunities within our changing population.  Though we talk about different needs and solutions in different localities, the disconnect is not just geographic. For example, our housing and health care programs are siloed and fail to deal with needs of our rapidly increasing cohort of frail low-income elderly, even though supportive housing is consumer preferred and much less expensive than institutional care.  For families, including recent immigrants, we make inadequate use of multifamily housing as a platform for residents and their neighbors in the surrounding community to improve their lives.

Finally, our delivery systems for affordable rental housing are unduly complex, regulated, and costly.  We have failed to take advantage of the rise of a class of private and public mission-oriented housing stewards, who could become the government's partners in making more effective use of scarce public resources.

The good news is that social enterprises have developed powerful models ready to be scaled to address many of these issues.  

Bill Kelly is President and Co-Founder of Stewards of Affordable Housing for the Future (SAHF).


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