Editor’s Note #186 Spring 2017 — What Is Affordable Housing?

Vision, Not Just Critique

In the Spring 2017 issue of Shelterforce, we talk about something that comes up daily for many people working in the community development field—what does housing affordability mean? Crafting practical policies to back up our vision requires that we be thoughtful about all of the pieces.

Cover of Shelterforce issue for Spring 2017. Black background (no art) with a headline in white: What is Affordable Housing?“If, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, a ‘budget is a moral document,’ then [the president’s] budget is a reflection of the moralities of the boardroom—the eviction notice, the emergency ward, and the pink slip.” So wrote James Tracy and Gordon Mantler in a Shelterforce post on March 23.

Tracy and Mantler remind us that in 1966, another kind of budget was proposed, one drafted by Bayard Rustin and endorsed by Martin Luther King Jr. The Freedom Budget for All Americans “proposed targeted investments simply through a ‘small portion of our future growth’ to create more jobs,” including “the replacement of an estimated 9.3 million ‘seriously deficient’ housing units and the building of thousands of hospitals, recreation facilities, and schools, all of which would create construction, teaching, and health care jobs, and thus continue to grow the economy.”

Amazingly, the Freedom Budget projected that the housing crisis could be completely resolved within a decade. That may sound pie-in-the-sky as we struggle to hold on to even inadequate programs we have in the face of constant assaults in Washington, but it’s also important to hold on to goals like that.

Any successful resistance needs a vision to offer people, not just a critique. We need to keep talking about a world of opportunity, fairness, dignity, security, equity, and community. We need stories and plans that give everyone a sense that there could be a place for them in an inclusive America.

Our aim needs to be high enough that when we compromise at all, it’s for something meaningful and joyous, not merely the avoidance of utter ruin.

And to do that, we need the big picture ideas and stories, we need courage and boldness, and we need practical know-how. We must have a clear-eyed and honest look at what we need and what we’re advocating for.

Crafting practical policies to back up our vision requires that we be thoughtful about all of the pieces, alert for unintended consequences, and willing to question received wisdom and admit mistakes.

And so in this issue we talk about something that comes up daily for many people working in the community development field—what does housing affordability mean? We bring in the history, the challenges, the different contexts, and the many ways to define what having “enough” means to provide a comprehensive look at this fundamental question.

In that spirit, we delve into some of that received wisdom—why do we measure housing affordability the way we do, and does it make sense? How do we define who is “low income” and what counts as having “enough” income to meet your basic needs? Is “naturally occurring affordable housing” really natural, and if not, what should we do about it?

In a fascinating roundtable, we also take an in-depth look at an issue where the responses tend not to fit neatly into traditional political pigeonholes—building regulations, such as zoning and codes, and how they affect housing affordability and the ability to create inclusive communities. Following up on what has been a lively conversation on our blog about the roles of supply and demand, market forces, and moderate-income housing, our participants remind us that regulation itself isn’t good or bad, but rather there are regulations whose tradeoffs are more or less acceptable.

In the spirit of resistance, Chris Estes of the National Housing Conference reminds us of one crucial component of organizing to defend our own programs—don’t fall into criticizing other programs to make the case. While Estes is speaking specifically about housing programs, the same goes for cross-sector advocacy. Certainly it is both a losing game and a shooting ourselves in the foot even if it were possible to argue that housing and community development is more important than saving health care or clean air. Instead, the community development field can join in a broader chorus, showing how our work is one crucial part of what it means to have a decent, just society.

And as many people have said, we should double down on local agendas, even while chaos reigns at the federal level. Last November several initiatives to fund housing passed in the Bay Area—our Organize! column shows how organizing among the residents of affordable housing made it happen. Do you register your residents to vote?

We are also pleased to announce the beginning of Shelterforce’s Health and Communities Desk, through which we will increase our coverage of that all-important intersection. In this issue we explore how one clinic is improving health outcomes by helping its patients address legal housing and related needs and how bringing mental health awareness—particularly knowledge about how trauma affects people—into a community organization can make better outcomes for everyone. With initial support from the Kresge Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we’ll be having even more on this topic in the months to come, both online and in print.


  • A calculator and black pen lie upon a double ruled notebook.

    After Paying for Housing, How Much is Enough for Basic Necessities?

    April 28, 2017

    We need some standards to explain what “enough” means. Here's a breakdown of the Family Budget Calculator, the Self-Sufficiency Standard, and the Housing Poverty Measure.

  • Three members of the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California give a thumbs up as they hold "Register and Vote" signs in different languages.

    How the Bay Area Got $2 Billion for Affordable Homes

    April 25, 2017

    San Francisco Bay Area voters approved bold new investments in 2016 after housing advocates--part of the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California--ignited a successful electoral strategy for the general election. Here's how it worked.

  • A female doctor t the Daughters of Charity Health Center in New Orleans wears a white lab coat with a stethoscope and stands next to an African American woman, who is wearing a black shirt.

    A Look at a Medical, Legal Aid Partnership in New Orleans

    April 25, 2017

    A health center has partnered with a legal services agency to better help patients by addressing the social determinants of health. This “medical-legal partnership” is part of a growing trend that’s taking place across the nation.