Saturday, March 1

A novice's thoughts on affordable housing

The issue of providing affordable housing is attracting attention in Missoula, where the median income has been growing much more slowly than housing costs. Beyond the obvious concerns about leaving lower-income families behind, this trend could also stunt the region's economic growth. Employers will have to pay more to attract qualified workers to defray their costs of living, and some workers and business will just say "no thanks." Since I'm a newcomer to this longstanding and contentious local issue, I have to work through some of the basic premises first.

What qualifies as "affordable housing?" It seems to me that there are two sides to this definition. The "affordable" side is straightforward: the housing must account for no more than 1/3 of a household's total expenditures. But what counts as livable "housing" is more difficult to pin down. Does it have to be a single-family home on a separate lot? Do rentals count? What is an acceptable state of disrepair? How close to the center of town must it be? It has occurred to me that a major cause of the differences in opinion over this issue could be chalked up to where the definitional standard is set.

And this is why I hesitate to jump head first into being proactive about the problem. Normally, when things start getting too expensive, the sensible reaction is to build smaller and build closer together. It looks like this is happening already in Missoula. Condos, which average at $160,000 a piece, are supplementing the single-family houses, which go for $220,000. Condo prices still seem high, but they are certainly attainable for those making the median income. And the prices may go down as the nascent market becomes more established and housing prices nationwide adjust themselves downward after the bubble burst. Another striking feature of the condo market is that developers seem to be voluntarily mixing a wide range of prices together, something that is a rarity (or even restricted) in so many housing neighborhoods. The new Dearborn condos range from $133,000 to $306,000. Density and diversity are pretty important features of livable communities.

Maybe the real problem is not so much the lack of housing in Missoula but the suburban American dream itself, what we think of as a house when we close our eyes. Domestic ideals that were forged in a time when urban living meant cholera, lack of sanitation, overcrowding, and industrial pollution have branded themselves into the national consciousness when the reality of an urban lifestyle has changed dramatically. As for that hypothetical teacher who may opt to take a job in Des Moines if he can't afford a suburban house in Missoula, he needs to be balanced with consideration for the other hypothetical teacher who passes on the bigger house in Des Moines to live in a compact and vibrant Missoula that has preserved its exceptional natural beauty from sprawl.


Daniel Nairn said...

I wanted to add a relevant quote from a recent BusinessWeek article so I'll just comment on myself ...

"Most arguments against land-use change presume that building compact communities is a trade-off; that by investing in walkable, denser neighborhoods we lose some or a lot of our affluence or quality of life. But what if the gains actually far outweigh the costs not only in ecological and fiscal terms but in lifestyle and prosperity terms as well?"

A fair question.

J.W. said...

I think a real issue in the affordable housing dilemma is how to accommodate families in our urban neighborhoods. Without families, urban neighborhoods cannot possess any long term stability. Cities cannot live on wealthy, sophistocated hipsters alone. And the suburban landscape of America has created a scenario where dense urban neighborhoods are both desirable, rare and therefore inordinately costly and inaccessible to typical middle class (not to mention lower class) families.

Even granting the positive contributions of condos and rentals to the affordable housing dilemma, and even granting that middle class families might trade space constraints and inconvience for the benefits of a walkable neighborhoods, it is simply to expensive to purchase a condo or rent a space that is large enough to accommodate even a small family. Philip Bess's solution, which I think is quite on point, is that new urbanists need to disentangle themselves to some degree from the real estate industry (which exists only for profit and therefore only exacerbates the current tendencies towards gentrification in urban neighborhoods and entropy in our public culture) and begin pursuing the "mediating" institutions of our culture--churches, synagogues, mosques, neighborhood associations, and so on. These are the institutions interested in the preservation of virtue and public culture (or at least the ones that should be, though it is clear that most religious folks have uncritically absorbed the functional rationality of modernist architecture and urban design) and are ultimately the only ones able to contribute to substantial rebuilding of a traditional urban realm that is accessible across socio-economic and racial lines.

Daniel Nairn said...

Reading through my post again, I realized that I sounded more laissez-faire than I intended to. I think you are right that finding a place for families is a huge issue for the long-term viability of cities (and the health of families too). And families necessarily need more space. In certain cases, there needs to be policy in place to allow this.

My only concern would be if an affordable housing policy gets in the way of a natural downgrading in housing size, which I think is necessary to prevent sprawl. In other words, if we determine that all middle-class people in this town have a right to a 2000 sq f. house with a nice yard, then there will simply be no place to put everyone without ruining all of the open space. I suspect that when most people say they cannot afford to live in Missoula, it's this type of house they are envisioning.

No other people in the developed world at any time in history have had this high of an expectation in housing. I actually think families may be strengthened by a little smaller house (but just speculation). All of this within reason, of course. I wouldn't expect a miniature Hong Kong out here in Montana.

I think Bess is right on here. Our downtown Church owns some houses on the block and I would love to see them hooked up with some sort of affordable housing clause to be a service to the community. We just destroyed one to make room for more parking. sigh.