Durable Growth

Setting the stage to discuss affordable housing

Housing project near London

Housing project near London

In four years of writing this blog, I’ve touched on affordable housing exactly once, in a 2013 post about demographically mixed communities.  (I’ve also written about public housing a few times, but that’s something of a different beast than affordable housing, although the two can have much in common from a public policy perspective.)

Admittedly, the topic of affordable housing has often been lurking just off the stage over the course of this blog, sometimes even sticking its nose around the corner of the curtain.  It’s hard to discuss urbanism without affordable housing hanging out nearby.

But I’ve avoided tackling the subject head-on because I’m uncomfortable with it.  I’m not scared of affordable housing, which I think is a generally fine idea that I typically encourage.  But I’m scared of writing about it because I’m not sure I’m up to the task.  It’s a complex and multi-layered problem that touches on subjects for which my grip may be uncertain.

But it may finally be time for me to take the next step, at least if I can rely on signs.  About six weeks ago, I attended a Petaluma City Council meeting.  My attendance wasn’t required.  I was attending as a courtesy to the Transit Manager who had a couple of small, hopefully non-controversial, topics on the agenda.  I also planned to listen to Council comments on another matter of some interest to me.

But when I arrived at the Council Chambers, I found myself walking up the steps behind a group of 35 to 40 citizens who had come unbidden to demand action from the Council on affordable housing.  I even held the door open for the last of the throng to enter City Hall.

And thus I was present as many of the contingent spoke to the Council, laying out the problems in their current housing and in finding alternatives.  Many of the comments pertained to apartments only a few blocks from my home.  The proximity made the stories of disrepair and infestation particularly uncomfortable.

I’ve taken that evening as a sign to finally wade into the question of affordable housing.  I hope I do it justice.

I’ll start today by setting out a few points that are articles of faith to me and that frame my perspective, even though I acknowledge that others may hold different other opinions.

Above, I noted that the issues of affordable housing and public housing often interface.  Before going further, I should note that homelessness is often also part of the conversation.  As the housing stock is consumed, some are forced into homelessness strictly by economics.  (The issues of homelessness through substance abuse and mental health are largely separate.)  In my comments below, I’ll move between affordable housing, public housing, and homelessness, perhaps sometimes without signaling the change, because the three are intertwined.

Affordable Housing Isn’t a Contemporary Problem – Because homelessness and concerns about affordable housing have grown sharply in recent years, some may think that the problem of housing is recent, but it has been with us since the beginning of civilization, a point that becomes evident from reading accounts of the squalid shelters on the outskirts of imperial Rome or of the slums of Dickensian London or from studying the photographs of early 20th century New York City or the Oklahoma dust bowl of the 1930s.

From the day that our distant ancestors first found a cave for shelter from a storm or bent over a sapling to provide a place for slumber, the less successful members of many communities have had lesser accommodations or did without.  And for nearly as long, citizens have argued about the correct public response.

However, Drivable Suburbia Has Made Affordable Housing Harder to Achieve: The post-World War II commitment to automobiles has worsened the housing situation in at least two ways.

The obvious effect has been the stress of transportation costs on household budgets.  As nearly every family has become compelled to own, maintain, fuel, and insure one or more cars, that portion of the family budget has usually become the second largest drain on income, trailing only housing.  And when financial bumps occur, as they always will, the dollars funds committed to automobiles, which often can’t be cut without losing the ability to reach jobs or to do shopping, make housing more difficult to sustain.

But another factor is that the burden of having an affordable housing strategy was lifted from communities for too long.  Affordable housing wasn’t required in order to have store clerks, newly-minted teachers, firefighter trainees, or others who filled low wage but essential jobs.  Instead, those people could simply commute, by car, to the next town for housing.   Or perhaps the town after that.

And when it became too arduous for low-wage people to commute to jobs, federal and state governments could be relied upon to build new freeways to make the commute tolerable again.

When it finally became evident that pushing the low-wage earners further and further away was no longer a workable solution, communities, sometimes at the insistence of regional governments, were forced to look for solutions.  But after with the years during which affordable housing was managed with cars and freeways, it was no longer an easy problem to solve.

A hypothetical question with which I sometimes play is whether we would have an affordable housing challenge if cars had never been invented and instead everyone had to commute on foot or on bike.  My answer is that there would still be a housing problem, after all the Romans and Londoners didn’t have cars and yet still had housing issues, but it would have had a different complexion and would be easier to address.

There Can Be Alternative Perspectives on the Need for Housing Assistance: About twenty years ago, Robert Fulghum wrote “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”, a intellectually-simple but nonetheless entertaining primer about how the lessons for getting along with other people were mostly learned in kindergarten.

I’m not sure if I ever read the book through, but sampled it on many occasions.  I had no objections to it, but feel that one lesson seems to have taken on a cultural impact that it shouldn’t have.  That lesson was the simple “If you broke it, you fix it.”

It’s a simple lesson that was easily applied to cleaning up spilt milk or putting toys away after a day of play.  But some seemed to want to apply it toward people who are in need of housing, taking the position that all people in need must have made mistakes and need to take responsibility for fixing themselves.

While I acknowledge that people have the right to hold that opinion, I think they’re wrong.  Too many people need housing assistance because of a lack of a sufficient public education, lingering emotional harm from military service, a lack of childhood lessons because family members were victims of a misdirected war on drugs, or spending their formative years that was too dangerous for them to thrive.

I’ll agree that some people made horrible life decisions and created their own problems.  But when I read “If you broke it, you fix it”, I think that “you” is most frequently us.  We broke those people’s lives and we need to find housing solutions to get them back on the right track.

Rent Control Is a Flawed Remedy: Many, including most of those at the recent City Council meeting, point toward rent control as a remedy for affordable housing.  I’m dubious.  Not only does rent control disincentivize new construction that could increase the housing stock, but it can also fall disproportionately on different rental owners, depending on individual circumstances.

Ultimately, I believe in the regulated market with as much freedom as possible, so that market forces can find good solutions.  Rent control doesn’t meet that standard.

I’m not arguing that the current market structure has been effective at providing affordable housing.  It clearly hasn’t.  But I think the solution lies in fixing the market which has been poorly structured for housing issues, rather than abandoning it in favor of a non-market-oriented regulatory system.

Okay, those are my four affordable housing touchstones.  Housing has always been a problem for human communities, but drivable suburbia has made it worse.  People can have different perspectives on the extent to which we should try to solve affordable housing, but I generally lean to the more aggressive side.  But I don’t feel that rent control should be a part of the solution.  Feel free to take a different tack on any of these questions.  I’ll admit that my positions remain malleable, so I’m willing to consider solid arguments.

In my next post, I’ll continue on the subject of affordable housing.  There are a couple of different directions that I may take, which I’ll sort out before putting fingers to keyboard.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

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 http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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