Housing as a Process, Not a Product

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Saturday, March 31, 2012

How can housing policy be responsive to today’s urgent needs (e.g., foreclosures, a sluggish housing market, affordability, etc.) and simultaneously address long-term trends (e.g., an aging population, growth of younger households)?

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If housing policy is to address the rapidly growing need for shelter and if we are going to attempt to respond to long-term demographic and economic trends, we need to alter the way we think about housing as a nation. Housing is not a product. It’s a process, and housing at all economic levels has to be set in the context of community, involving many people and organizations. If we are to provide affordable housing for all, the public, private and social sectors have to come together.

The public sector creates the context and environment for private investment in housing.  One of critical roles of the government is to regulate land use.  The best community designs include mixed-income, mixed-use developments that include the foundation for future growth.  Offering incentives such as density bonuses or requirements for inclusionary zoning helps assure that affordable housing options are available in our high-cost communities.

Governments also establish infrastructure. Affordable housing works best when it is in the right location—near transit systems, shopping areas and good schools—and when it is close to the areas where residents work. 

Thriving communities also require investment from the private sector, which has the unique ability to mobilize capital and create scale. With the upper end of the market overbuilt, we are seeing new models that incorporatie some very creative ideas. For example, a private developer in Australia’s elite Victoria Harbor sold the lowest three floors of an eight-story upscale apartment building to Melbourne Affordable Housing, which, in turn, is selling the units to those who work in service industries.  This was a win-win since the economics of the building did not work when the developer had to fill eight floors of expensive apartments.  However, by offering more modest homes on the three lowest floors with no harbor views, the numbers worked for the developer, and low- and middle-income families were able to afford housing in the area where they work. 

Finally, a common thread in successful community development projects all around the world is the engagement of the local community. This seems obvious, but it is amazing how often the voices of those who will be directly affected—particularly in low-income areas— are left out of the conversation.  The hard work of bringing people together is what the nonprofit sector does particularly well. 

I believe we must develop new and integrative housing solutions because the reality is that if children don’t live in decent homes, the odds of their staying healthy plummet.  If they’re not healthy, they don’t do well in school; and if they don’t get an education, they don’t get decent jobs, meaning they won’t be able to care for their families or break out of the stranglehold of poverty. All the pieces have to line up if we are going to maintain healthy and thriving communities.

Jonathan T.M. Reckford is Chief Executive Officer of Habitat for Humanity International.


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