“Workforce Housing” Is an Insulting Term

So folks, we need to have a chat about this whole "workforce housing" thing. It's a problem. Or rather, the way it is often being used these days is a problem, which is as shorthand for housing for people who aren't really low-income, but are still having trouble affording housing in a hot market.

Photo by Flickr user David Tan, CC-BY

So folks, we need to have a chat about this whole “workforce housing” thing. It’s a problem.

Or rather, the way it is often being used these days is a problem, which is as shorthand for housing for people who aren’t really low-income, but are still having trouble affording housing in a hot market. Moderate or middle income, depending where you are. At the time this article was written, ULI defined it as housing for people making 60 to 120 percent of area median income (it no longer does, link above is an archived version), but I have heard it most often coming up with respect to projects in the upper end of that range (or that range in an area with a very high AMI).

It is meant to be for teachers, cops, nurses. It is being specifically contrasted to “standard” affordable housing.

For example, see this definition from a Business Miami article:

Workforce housing policies focus on providing attractive and affordable homes for middle-income service workers, such as police officers, teachers and nurses, in close proximity to their jobs. It is primarily a concern in regions like South Florida with high housing costs. HUD does not distinguish between affordable and workforce housing. But many housing authorities define workforce housing as homes aimed at households earning from 60 percent to 120 percent of the area’s median income (AMI). In contrast, the term affordable housing is generally used for households whose income is less than 60 percent of AMI.

I hope the problem with this is obvious:
The low-wage workforce is still the workforce!!

The vast majority of people making less than 60 percent of AMI (and even a significant portion of those much poorer) are working, and they are working at essential jobs that make our economies function, from home health aide, to school bus driver, to day care worker, to farmworker to cashier.

Not only are these frequently not living wage jobs, they are often jobs with less opportunity for advancement to living wages (and thus those who have them are likely to need housing assistance for longer than people who are likely to get raises and promotions in a few years). These jobs also tend to have inconsistent hours, crappy benefits, and poor working conditions.

But they are unmistakably and unarguably work. Not wanting to accord those jobs dignity and respect as a society is part of what allows them to continue to offer such horrible conditions.

To imply that somehow anyone who is low income is not in the workforce is horribly insulting—and insulting to the very population that has always been community development’s core constituency.

Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to address the issue that folks at a moderate- to middle-income range and/or in these important and politically appealing professions are struggling with housing affordability and a jobs-housing mismatch. Though it is a challenge in terms of limited resource allocation, it’s a reasonable concern not to want a popular community to only house the very wealthy and maybe some lower income folks in more deeply subsidized housing, but to want it to have a full economic mix, and not force a segment of its employees into far-flung commutes.

I also get it, kind of, as to why the term is tempting. After years of fighting the stereotypes neighbors have of affordable housing—that it’s going to bring down property values and be full of people who bring crime for example (all of which have been repeated disproven)—it’s easy to see why a term that tries by its very name to circumvent those reactions for once and push positive buttons in the brains of those who need convincing is appealing.

Often these developments are explicitly marketed to, or even limited to, particular professions, like teachers or emergency personnel, so there is a bit of an association with specific professions that suggests the idea.

But that’s an awfully hollow victory if what we are doing by it is REINFORCING those stereotypes by comparison for the rest of the affordable housing world, who are, it needs to be said, trying to house people with much greater needs and fewer options.

If “workforce housing” means the limited slice of affordable housing it is currently used it to mean, does it not imply that other affordable housing is non-workforce housing? Can’t you picture the politicians and neighborhood association leaders you’ve nominally won over going on to say, “Well, I’m ok with some workforce housing, but not that other stuff. We don’t need layabouts in our town.”

How could anyone in good conscience do that to the rest of our colleagues?

We have enough trouble with the stigma on the term “affordable housing,” which of course replaced “low-income housing” to try to avoid the negative images that term had started to carry. But those terms are loaded because of the associations put on them by opponents, not because of any inherent problem with the terms.

Workforce housing, as it’s currently being used, has an inherent problem.

It could be redeemed if we just decided as a field that actually, it just is the new replacement for “affordable housing,” and it refers to ALL housing that is built to be affordable to someone who can’t afford market rate housing. That could have a bit of a ring to it, even.

Or if we took it back to the original intent of the term, which meant housing near particular job centers affordable to the people who have those jobs, whatever they are. (Caveat there, of course, is that wherever there are concentrations of moderate- and middle-income jobs there are also concentrations of low-wage and poverty-wage jobs supporting them, so true workforce housing for that area would need to be for a range of incomes.)

But neither of those is how I hear it used these days. And if “workforce housing” can’t be brought around to one of those meanings, it needs to be retired.

Update: The article was updated April 10, 2023, to reflect a change in how ULI defines the term workforce housing.

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