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Thread: What to do about affordable housing?

  1. #1
    Cyburbian Dashboard's avatar
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    What to do about affordable housing?

    The community for which I work is really trying to tackle the homelessness issue. From a planning perspective, the overarching problem is affordable housing. I'm curious as to the different mechanisms, partnerships, programs, etc. that other planners or agencies are implementing to get some tangible improvement in housing affordability. I am very interested in hearing of what has worked...is it being improved via ordinances? Partnerships with non-profits? Your thoughts and comments are appreciated...

  2. #2
    Cyburbian jread's avatar
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    The S.M.A.R.T. housing program here in Austin has had a good deal of success, though many of the projects are just now getting started: http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/ahfc/smart.htm
    "I don't suffer from insanity... I enjoy every single minute of it!"

  3. #3
    1) Homelessness is not a problem of affordable housing. Poor families will crowd into tiny spaces but they will not go homeless. The homeless are a whole other class of people who either a) don't want the responsibility of having a home and prefer life on the streets or b) are mentally ill and off their medication with no supervision.

    2) Affordable housing is a problem of supply. Any housing built increases the stock of affordable housing. Any policy for affordable housing has to first establish if it will make the housing supply increase. A city densification initiative would be the best policy to adopt, even if all that's built are high-rise luxury condos. People move out of something to move into these condos and that means there is space for rent available somewhere.

  4. #4
    Cyburbian iamme's avatar
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    Outside of the larger urban areas or California, I don't see there being problems with affordable housing. If there is a problem, it is economic stagnation. Many communities could use a healthy dose of gentrification, or unslumming in the least.

  5. #5
    Cyburbian Michele Zone's avatar
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    You might check this thread: American Housing Standards – spun-off from the “homelessness” thread

    For anyone interested in understanding who becomes homeless and why (rather than just believing ugly and hostile stereotypes), I highly recommend the book "Tell them who I am". It was the main textbook for my class "Homelessness and Public Policy", supplemented by excerpts from other books, various articles, a 40 hour internship working directly with homeless people, and hands-on exercises/field trips. It was taught by a man who works full time with homeless populations as a social worker and teaches part-time because he is so committed to doing something substantial to address the problem.

  6. #6
    Cyburbian Dashboard's avatar
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    Originally posted by jaws
    Homelessness is not a problem of affordable housing.
    I disagree with that. Interviews with single moms staying in homeless shelters in the area have them saying that they cannot find affordable places to live. While unemployment also contributes to being homeless, not everyone who is homeless is jobless. I will concede that low-paying jobs don't allow them affordable housing, but I think the issue is multi-faceted and needs to be attacked on multiple fronts.

  7. #7
    Cyburbian SW MI Planner's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Dashboard
    The community for which I work is really trying to tackle the homelessness issue. From a planning perspective, the overarching problem is affordable housing. I'm curious as to the different mechanisms, partnerships, programs, etc. that other planners or agencies are implementing to get some tangible improvement in housing affordability. I am very interested in hearing of what has worked...is it being improved via ordinances? Partnerships with non-profits? Your thoughts and comments are appreciated...
    Hi there! Are you in Michigan? Where I am at there is a large supply of affordable homes, but they aren't necessarily safe and of acceptable quality. Depending on what exactly the issue is there are there are a variety of programs through MSHDA, and other non-profits. Do you need new housing, housing rehab, down payment assistance, etc.? If you let me know where you are at and what you think you need, maybe I can point you in a couple different directions.

  8. #8
    Maybe your community could work to connect the homeless with police auctions and make it easier for them to acquire and fix up abandoned properties?

  9. #9
    Cyburbian Michele Zone's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Dashboard
    I disagree with that. Interviews with single moms staying in homeless shelters in the area have them saying that they cannot find affordable places to live. While unemployment also contributes to being homeless, not everyone who is homeless is jobless. I will concede that low-paying jobs don't allow them affordable housing, but I think the issue is multi-faceted and needs to be attacked on multiple fronts.
    You are right: it is multi-faceted and addressing affordable housing can help.

  10. #10
    Quote Originally posted by Dashboard
    I disagree with that. Interviews with single moms staying in homeless shelters in the area have them saying that they cannot find affordable places to live. While unemployment also contributes to being homeless, not everyone who is homeless is jobless. I will concede that low-paying jobs don't allow them affordable housing, but I think the issue is multi-faceted and needs to be attacked on multiple fronts.
    Cannot find an affordable place is not the same as no affordable places available. Maybe the mother is not competent enough to find housing on her own. Maybe she isn't responsible enough to retain housing and no one wants to rent to her. In that case the mother doesn't need affordable housing, she needs supervision.

    Regardless if she is in a shelter she is technically not homeless. People living out in the streets are homeless, and usually by their own choice.

    Quote Originally posted by passdoubt
    Maybe your community could work to connect the homeless with police auctions and make it easier for them to acquire and fix up abandoned properties?
    Homeless people are absolutely not in any position to aspire to home ownership without significant change in their lives. Why do you think it is they are homeless? Is anyone really going to loan them the money to buy a house?

  11. #11
    Quote Originally posted by jaws
    Homeless people are absolutely not in any position to aspire to home ownership without significant change in their lives. Why do you think it is they are homeless? Is anyone really going to loan them the money to buy a house?
    Hey buddy I agree with you that your average homeless person is in no position to tackle homeownership on their own, but Dashboard has made it clear in every post that he's not talking about the typical homeless population as you and I understand it (the people living on the streets because they refuse help, have drug addictions, mental health disorders, or a combination of the three).

  12. #12
    Cyburbian Luca's avatar
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    You want affordable housing?
    It's EASY.
    Let landlords build it - don't create unnecessary obstacles with abwtruse zoning rules (there are a lot of marginally desirable properties, like above shops, etc., which oftne are not 'zoned' for reisdential but could easily be); keep housing regulations to a minimum (basic fire and structural safety, but no bells and whistles); enforce evictions in a timely manner. The private sector WILL provide; They're what has lamentably become known as 'slumlords', you know, people who build rental units for people who are not middle class like you and me.
    Life and death of great pattern languages

  13. #13
    Cyburbian abrowne's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by passdoubt
    Maybe your community could work to connect the homeless with police auctions and make it easier for them to acquire and fix up abandoned properties?
    Do you know how much initiative, resolve, and money it takes to do this? I agree with jaws, the homeless are an issue almost completely aside from affordable housing. Drugs and mental illness are crippling.

    That being said, if in Dashboard's community the surveys indicate otherwise then fair enough.

  14. #14
    Cyburbian chasqui's avatar
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    Afoordable Housing

    Last December I started working with a consulting firm with a string focus on affordable housing and, through the Consolidated Planning process (HUD's requirement of states and cities receiving CDBG, ESG, HOME and HOPWA) funds, homelessness issues. The ESG, emergency shelter grant funds are used directly for homelessness issues - things like your traditional day shelters and "3 hots and a cot" to sheter + care programs. HOPWA funds are, as the letters stand for, designated for "housing opportunities for persons with AIDS". The HOME funds are used to aid low-income individuals with housing. Dashboard, I recommend that you find out what programs these funds are being directed to - there may be more going on in your community than you are aware of. If your city is greater than 50K in population it can receive funding directly from HUD - otherwise it is distributed through the state.
    As far as homelessness, there are a lot of misconseptions and stereotypes out there. Many of them are prejudicial. I am no expert on homelessness, but after speaking to non-proft providers, I discovered that many of my pre-conceived notions about homelessness were wrong. The path transitioning from homelessness to independant living is not the same for all homeless sub-populations - or sometimes feasible.
    It sounds like intuitively you feel that affordable housing is a problem in the community - and that cost is the reason some homeless persons cannot transition out of shelters into their own home. I would recommend you get some data. Your area Continuum of Care can help with that.
    Drop me a line if you need some info - chasqui32 at yahoo dot com.

  15. #15
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by Luca
    You want affordable housing?
    It's EASY.
    Let landlords build it - don't create unnecessary obstacles with abwtruse zoning rules (there are a lot of marginally desirable properties, like above shops, etc., which oftne are not 'zoned' for reisdential but could easily be); keep housing regulations to a minimum (basic fire and structural safety, but no bells and whistles); enforce evictions in a timely manner. The private sector WILL provide; They're what has lamentably become known as 'slumlords', you know, people who build rental units for people who are not middle class like you and me.
    Right on Luca. I agree with each one of your points.

    The conclusion of a recent Harvard housing study Why Have Housing Prices Gone Up? supports your position:

    "In sum, the evidence points toward a man-made scarcity of housing in the sense that the housing supply has been constrained by government regulation as opposed to fundamental geographic limitations."

    A scarcity of housing contributes to unnaturally high housing prices. Planners can do their part by rubbishing all regulations except, like Luca said, regulations genuinely aimed at ensuring safety. Many New York City suburbs, for instance, have criminalized renting part of your home, say, a basement apartment. Repeal these unnecessary regulations and let people provide affordable housing.

  16. #16
    Cyburbian Michele Zone's avatar
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    The comments about housing policies causing a shortage of affordable housing were covered in some depth in this thread (which I linked to earlier but it doesn't appear that anyone noticed -- sorry for the repeat): American Housing Standards – spun-off from the “homelessness” thread

    For some general discussion about homelessness, this thread is rather good: Homelessness in Urban Centers

    chasqui is right: there are a lot of misconceptions and stereotypes out there (and in this thread). I have done a lot of volunteer work at a homeless shelter in recent years -- the same homeless shelter where I did my internship for my class "Homelessness and Public Policy". But I really don't want to have this argument again, so if anyone cares to hear a little more about the reality instead of the stereotyped answers of "drug addiction and mental illness and these people choose to live on the streets", you are more than welcome to revisit a few of the previous discussions on the topic. There are a few more threads if you do a quick search, but I think the two I linked to are particularly good. As jresta once said about this topic: "I'm having thread deja vu" (or something like that).

  17. #17
    Cyburbian abrowne's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Michele Zone
    chasqui is right: there are a lot of misconceptions and stereotypes out there (and in this thread). I have done a lot of volunteer work at a homeless shelter in recent years -- the same homeless shelter where I did my internship for my class "Homelessness and Public Policy". But I really don't want to have this argument again, so if anyone cares to hear a little more about the reality instead of the stereotyped answers of "drug addiction and mental illness and these people choose to live on the streets", you are more than welcome to revisit a few of the previous discussions on the topic. There are a few more threads if you do a quick search, but I think the two I linked to are particularly good. As jresta once said about this topic: "I'm having thread deja vu" (or something like that).
    I'm not convinced they choose to live on the street. It just seems to me that you can't throw them into a domestic situation and expect them to manage their affairs without some help initially. Too many of these "solutions" only cover one aspect of the situation and are doomed to failure.

  18. #18
    Cyburbian Michele Zone's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by abrowne
    I'm not convinced they choose to live on the street. It just seems to me that you can't throw them into a domestic situation and expect them to manage their affairs without some help initially. Too many of these "solutions" only cover one aspect of the situation and are doomed to failure.
    Let me just start with noting that "homelessness" is not a trait like sex or skin color. The homeless population comes from the rest of the population -- it isn't some segregated, genetically distinct group. And "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure". Even if you cannot get currently homeless people off the street solely by addressing affordable housing, you most certainly can prevent (or reduce the number of) future incidences of homelessness among low-income households by making housing more affordable. Dealing with homelessness is not just about getting people off the street. It is mostly about keeping them from landing there in the first place and making it more likely that they can remain off the street when they do return to a home. Most homeless people are not there long-term. Although discussions of homelessness invariably focus on "street people" and everyone then throws their hands up in the air and gives up because their situation is so extreme and no one can imagine resolving those issues, the reality is that you can substantially reduce homelessness by addressing the needs and issues of people who are at risk but not yet actually homeless. And from that point of view, in the long term, addressing affordable housing is a very significant thing to do.

  19. #19
    Cyburbian abrowne's avatar
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    I'm a bit like you sometimes (I think? maybe presumptuous), Michelle, in that I tend to sometimes put my foot in my mouth / say things that aren't quite clear. In my mind we are mixing terms, but I can see now how you view the relation. The problem of affordable housing for people at RISK of being homeless is not connected in my mind to the idea of homelessness. It's connected to affordability and social housing and social welfare and the need to pay attention to these demographics in our cities. You are quite right in saying that the majority of people that find themselves homeless usually are not homeless for long - most never even hit the street, instead finding a temporary reprive with friends while their financial crisis sorts itself out. It's a bit of a revolving door, and mostly invisible. The homelessness that is decried and talked about (and seen) is the whole throw-up-your-hands problem you detailed in your post.

    People being people, and people often being similar in core behaviour, tend to not like being without shelter. People with the means and the will tend to change their situation - new job, temporarily staying with friends, possibly moving to another city, and so on. It is those that do not have any means or will to effectively help themselves that are chiefly meant when the term homeless is tossed about. My point is that simply providing affordable housing for these people is not the sole answer and that social net programs and health programs and employment programs seem to be more important as steps in helping that particular group leave the street behind. Yes, they need something affordable to land in when the time comes, but we are talking about two very different type of issue.

    Especially in this case. When homelessness is complained about in a city it is usually the visible, panhandling element that gets minimized.

  20. #20
    Cyburbian Man With a Plan's avatar
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    Zoning, Zoning, Zoning

    Assumption- homelessness is exacerbated by the lack of affordable housing. If a person can work over 50 hours at minimum wage and not afford a one bedroom apartment, homelessness is very likely. I do agree, however, that this is just one cause of the problem. If you agree with this assumption, please read on-

    Now, what to do... Self absorbed digression: I have participated in multiple workshops, etc on the subject as well as guest lectured on this topic. Ok back to the rant: Ironically, there is one dark, dark, eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeevil idea that "evil doooers dedicated to people who hate freedom" like myself have promoted. It's soooo simple and obvious that one can hardly imagine that it's not suggested all the time. Ladies and Gentlemen (drum roll please) reduce your ****** minimum lot size requirements!!!!!

    Gasp- the room goes silent. Nobody makes eye contact. Rolled eyes. Smirks.

    OK Massachusetts town representative...what is the least restrictive minimum lot size allowed in your town? Two acres.

    How much would a two-acre lot in average town in Eastern Massachusetts cost to purchase, prepare and develop?

    $At least 800,000.

    And you're saying that you cannot attain the 10% minimum - do you think there's a reason?


  21. #21
    Cyburbian Michele Zone's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by abrowne
    I'm a bit like you sometimes (I think? maybe presumptuous), Michelle, in that I tend to sometimes put my foot in my mouth / say things that aren't quite clear. In my mind we are mixing terms, but I can see now how you view the relation. The problem of affordable housing for people at RISK of being homeless is not connected in my mind to the idea of homelessness. It's connected to affordability and social housing and social welfare and the need to pay attention to these demographics in our cities. You are quite right in saying that the majority of people that find themselves homeless usually are not homeless for long - most never even hit the street, instead finding a temporary reprive with friends while their financial crisis sorts itself out. It's a bit of a revolving door, and mostly invisible. The homelessness that is decried and talked about (and seen) is the whole throw-up-your-hands problem you detailed in your post.
    It is not "just you" -- most people think only of "street people" when the topic of "homelessness" comes up. But if you are going to design a program to reduce the incidence of homelessness in your town, you have to have a broader view. Only thinking about how to help those already on the street is like saying "We won't provide any medical coverage for anyone unless it is a dire, life-threatening emergency. Then they can come to the ER and we will pull out all stops to save their life." And, actually, America does just that. Street people can literally get tens of thousands of dollars worth of medical care for an emergency. The U.S. government is willing to spend more money on emergency care than it would take to pay the person's rent for the entire year. And when a person on the street ends up in the ER, the bill is usually pretty big -- for things which usually would not have become life-threatening in the first place if they had a roof over their head. The only real "cure" for homelessness is to deal with the human issues that lead to it BEFORE the person is already on the street. Dealing with it after it has gone that far has huge costs, both monetarily and in human terms -- if it can be fixed at all. So any good and effective program should aim first to prevent homelessness for those at risk -- that WILL reduce the number of people on the street.

    Quote Originally posted by abrowne
    People being people, and people often being similar in core behaviour, tend to not like being without shelter. People with the means and the will tend to change their situation - new job, temporarily staying with friends, possibly moving to another city, and so on. It is those that do not have any means or will to effectively help themselves that are chiefly meant when the term homeless is tossed about. My point is that simply providing affordable housing for these people is not the sole answer and that social net programs and health programs and employment programs seem to be more important as steps in helping that particular group leave the street behind. Yes, they need something affordable to land in when the time comes, but we are talking about two very different type of issue.

    Especially in this case. When homelessness is complained about in a city it is usually the visible, panhandling element that gets minimized.
    Yes, the types of difficult human issues which tend to lead to homelessness are not easily resolved. But in America, we have a lot fewer options than we used to for affordable housing. We have a lot fewer "single room occupancy" buildings, boarding houses, etc. (something that was talked about in the link I have posted in this thread twice now). Lots of people who have no real hope of ever resolving the issues that reduce their ability to support themselves, could remain off the street if they had a cheap enough place to go -- retirees with health problems, welfare moms, etc. Also, since the extended family is often the resource which keeps someone off the street, what you find is that people end up homeless when the entire extended family has run out of ability to rise to the occasion. So, I think more affordable housing also has the potential to strengthen the ability of the extended family to continue to be supportive. Just as battered women who finally murder their abusive spouses invariably turn out to be the most severely beaten and the most acutely isolated -- ie they have no place else to turn -- folks who end up on the street are those whose social safety net has simply come unraveled -- ie they have no place left to turn.

    The systemic problems concerning housing cost are something planners can and should try to address to alleviate this issue. As far as I know, planners are not really responsible for dealing with health care, drug rehab programs, and all the many other problems which get involved in trying to address such a complex issue. So, as the OP stated: for planners, the main issue to address is affordable housing. So it irritates me that so much of this thread has focused on ugly stereotypes and not on an effort to actually answer the original question: What is your community doing to improve affordable housing? (Edit: by that, I assume he means "improve housing affordability". ) He knows what he wants. Instead of telling him 'Homeless people are all drug addicts and cannot be helped', I wish people would tell him what he wants to know. He has the right idea: affordable housing is the piece of this puzzle that he can take some responsibility for. So why not help him do that instead of talking trash about how useless, worthless, etc. "street people" are?

    Just me 2 cents.

  22. #22
    Cyburbian chasqui's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Michele Zone
    He has the right idea: affordable housing is the piece of this puzzle that he can take some responsibility for.
    Amen.
    Unfortunately I have found that planning and housing departments are sometimes working at odds. While commissioners, councilmembers et.al. want extensive single and multi-family housing standards, dictating large minimum lot sizes, 100% masonry coverage, and mandated costly amentities, in many places housing departments are struggling to get a few affordable units built through donations and non-profits.

    As planners, it is our responsibility to try to ensure that quality housing is available. And, contrary to what "free marketers" and developers will tell you, we also have to ensure that it is available in a variety of styles and prices.
    Do a housing study. What are rents in your area? If you made minimum wage, could you live in your community?

  23. #23
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    Affordable housing: simple answers?

    This is my first post on Cyburbia, so hello.

    I'm very ignorant about the problem of affordable housing and its causes and solutions. I do have opinions on the matter, but they are wearing thin since they are not backed up by any hard knowledge. So I do want to poke and prod at the subject and see if I can learn something. I have only searched a little for "affordable housing" in this forum. But if this has already been discussed to death in a thread I didn't find, please kindly point me in that direction.

    Is the lack of affordable housing simply a matter of supply and demand in which a shortage is caused by restrictive zoning? Is there a consensus among informed people or is this controversial and constantly debated?

    I hear some people say that certain new developments raise the value of housing in an area rather than contributing to lower, or stable, housing costs by adding housing stock to the market. Which is true? Is there a consensus among informed people or is this controversial and constantly debated?

    Does rent control worsen the problem of high housing costs by scaring away new development? Is there a consensus among informed people or is this controversial and constantly debated?

  24. #24

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    This is controversial and constantly debated. The causes of housing inflation are not the same in every community, and thus the solutions - if any - also vary. IMO, it all goes back to land values, but there are numerous contributing factors. The only way a community can address it is by local analysis., strong leadership at the highest levels, and a willingness to invest. The word "simple" has no place in the discussion.

  25. #25
    Quote Originally posted by TheBostonian
    Is the lack of affordable housing simply a matter of supply and demand in which a shortage is caused by restrictive zoning?
    Prices for housing are set on the market, therefore affordable housing is a supply/demand problem. This doesn't mean that zoning is always the problem. For example you aren't going to create affordable housing in Manhattan no matter how you zone because the desireability of the place is just too high. There is however a lot of construction in Manhattan. The market is adding supply, which will in time have a depressionary effect on housing prices throughout the whole region, and this is what zoning must nurture. Zoning for separation of uses makes it unprofitable to build any housing other than single-family homes and the occasional luxury condo, limiting the range of housing available for everyone and driving up prices.

    I hear some people say that certain new developments raise the value of housing in an area rather than contributing to lower, or stable, housing costs by adding housing stock to the market. Which is true?
    Value is relative. The value of an area can only be determined by comparing it to that of another. It is possible that a new development increases the quality of a town so much that the desireability effect on prices is greater than the supply effect, but this implies that desireability of another area has fallen along with a supply increase. Affordable housing has still increased, only by indirect effect on another town or neighborhood.

    Does rent control worsen the problem of high housing costs by scaring away new development? Is there a consensus among informed people or is this controversial and constantly debated?
    Rent control is poison for the housing market. It makes every real estate enterprise riskier. Is a landlord going to rent to a single-mother who might be around for thirty years if it's impossible to adjust her rent to the market? It's a big risk. It's likely that this single mother won't be able to find a place to stay. And what are the incentives to do maintenance on buildings if the improvements won't result in more profits for the owner? They might as well let the place rot until the rent accurately reflects the condition the building is in.

    It also tends to breed anti-social behavior. There are ways to get rid of tenants who are rent-controlled by making their life unbearable. Maybe the heating breaks down and the super has a long-list of other tasks to finish (in other non-controlled apartments). Maybe a bunch of goons wait outside the apartment to harass an old lady for seemingly no reason at all (this was a story recently). Letting people negotiate their own rents generally results in a more civilized outcome.

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