What are some of the key characteristics of a healthy housing system? And how can the success of these features be measured?
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A healthy system gives residents housing as a platform to improve their lives, whatever their personal situations. For some, that platform supports a simple structure. For others, the platform must support access to services. As we have with permanent supportive housing for the formerly homeless, we need to study and measure the extent to which housing with service supports enables other special needs residents to improve their lives and reduces costs elsewhere in the society and then we need to make changes to increase the impact. For example, we need to measure the health outcomes and the savings to the health care system from supportive housing for very frail seniors and the seriously disabled who are otherwise in or headed to much more expensive institutional care.
A healthy housing system is also balanced between ownership and rental housing.
For decades, we have enshrined and heavily subsidized the ideal of homeownership. Interrelated predatory lending, toxic mortgages, and the price bubble took away much of what had made homeownership a source of stability and asset growth. The $210 billion federal dollars we spent directly and on tax breaks in 2011 disproportionately benefited upper middle class homeowners. A healthy system will return to financing and market basics. This does not mean imposing rigid down payment and other requirements that screen out low-income Americans, since experience has shown that carefully designed programs, with counseling and long-term fixed rate loans, work for many working poor families.
All of us are renters at various points in our lives, and for economic or life style reasons many of us are always renters. A healthy system accommodates renters as we find them–across the income, age, and mobility scales. As America has moved towards a more bifurcated income pattern, the need for affordable rental housing has only increased. In a healthy system, local government encourages rather than constrains multifamily construction and also allows traditional–but now disfavored–forms of occupancy such as rooming houses and granny flats. Finally, we need to redirect some of the federal resources to the poorest renters, only a quarter of whom can be served with current federal resources. We should continue to measure the rental cost burden and add an element to reflect transportation costs.
The healthy system of the future will also make much greater use of hybrid forms such as shared equity ownership, land trusts, and the like. These hybrid forms can provide the optimum mix of a sense of personal investment, risk, and opportunity for appreciation.
Bill Kelly is President and Co-Founder of Stewards of Affordable Housing for the Future (SAHF).
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