Giving a fair start to the next generation

Low-income housing in Sacramento

Low-income housing in Sacramento

I recently spotted a building under construction in a redevelopment district.  I concurred with the mixed-use and transit master plan for the district, so was pleased to see the construction.

When I asked about the building, I was told that it was low-income housing, not surprising because the post-recession financing opportunities for low-income housing have been more robust than for other types of development.  But the information about the low-income housing came with a tone implying that it was housing for folks who weren’t like us.  It was housing for “others”.

I understood why this attitude exists.  Nor was it the first time that I’ve come across the attitude.  But I was still troubled by it.

When we isolate low-income folks in low-income buildings, we give those folks a label that is often wrong and always unfair.   Sure, a low-income building likely has residents who have failed by laziness to grab opportunities or who have stooped to crime, but it also has residents who have been battered by misfortune and who are working hard to recover or who have chosen to follow a career passion that doesn’t pay well.  To paint all of the residents with the same brush is unfair.

And to none is it more unfair than to the children who live in the building.

Let me to offer a fictional vignette, although one in which I expect most readers to find at least a few reminders of events in their own pasts.

Let’s say that a little girl from a low-income building heads off to begin first grade.  As children tend to do, she looks about at lunchtime in hopes of making a friend.  And sure enough, she finds another little girl with whom to eat.

Over a couple of weeks, the two become chums.  The girl from the low-income building eventually invites her new friend to her apartment for a Saturday play date.

The friend goes home and excitedly tells her parents about the invitation.  The parents ask where the friend lives.  Upon hearing the address, they exchange a look and reply, “Well, perhaps she can come here to play.”  The friend is only a few weeks into first grade and has already learned that there are places and people that are somehow different and unacceptable to people like her.

This scenario is completely fictional, but it rings true, doesn’t it?  I expect that many can recall similar situations in their own lives.

So, what can we do about the labeling?  The obvious solution is to educate folks that there are many solid citizens living in low-income housing.  But that effort feels much like the racial equality issue which is still underway after sixty years without an end in sight.

The next alternative is to stop building projects that contain only low-income units.  I could write of a grand vision of a world in which low-income housing isn’t needed, but that’s far beyond the scope of an urbanist blog.  But I can write about beginning to incorporate all future low-income units into buildings that also include market-rate units.

This would also be a great change from an urbanist perspective.  Any timidity about walking past a low-income building would be eliminated if low-income units were instead integrated into market-rate buildings, enhancing walkability.

Changing this model won’t be easy.  There’s an entire industry built around low-income housing, from non-profit developers to government financing specialists to investors who specialize in the tax credits.  Restructuring the industry to a more integrated model will require many adjustments.  But the benefit is worth the pain.

Also, many folks in market-rate housing won’t be eager to have low-income residents down the hall, preferring that they remain in a separate building.  That’s okay.  Many of the same folks once felt the same way about African-Americans and were able to get over it.

Lastly, most market-rate developers, for good reasons, don’t want to incorporate low-income units into their projects.  It’s already hard to manage a project when building for a single demographic slice.  Adding architectural design for a broader range of units, managing additional subcontractors for different types of details, and training salespeople to work with both market-rate and low-income renters are all significant new burdens.

As a result, most developers, given the alternative, would rather pay a low-income housing fee than include low-income units in their projects.  But that’s an option that we need to take away from them.

Are there ways to make developers more content to broaden the range of the target demographic for their projects?  Many cities allow a higher density if low-income housing is included in a project, but the incentive isn’t enough to entice most developers.  Plus, the policy puts higher density on the wrong side of the equation.  It makes density something that cities are grudgingly willing to accept in exchange for a greater good, when density is something that cities should be actively encouraging.

The only solution seems to be something that I’ve suggested before.  We need to clean up the entitlement process, giving developers lower costs and more certainty.  And then we require the developers to apply their savings toward building the projects that walkable urban settings truly require, including residential projects that integrate market-rate and low-income housing.

Many believe that upward mobility, the belief that talent and dedication can overcome humble beginnings, is engrained into the character of the U.S.  But the reality is that, by many measures, social mobility within the U.S. has declined rapidly in our lifetimes and now trails much of the western world.

There are many reasons for this loss of social mobility, most of them beyond the realm of an urbanism blog.  But applying a tag of “low-income housing resident” at birth is one of those reasons.  And it’s one that urbanists should work to eliminate.  We need to stop slapping labels on the foreheads of first-graders in pinafores.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at

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