‘Do We Need Affordable Housing’ Is the Wrong Question to Ask

How we can help elected officials promote genuine community by ensuring inclusive, mixed-income housing.

A 2007 New Orleans public housing protest. Photo by flickr user Culture:Subculture, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


photo shows a demonstration in New Orleans, with a sign reading "Make this neighborhood mixed income"

A 2007 New Orleans public housing protest. Photo by flickr user Culture:Subculture, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A first-time candidate running for her city council called me recently for my take on local housing policy. After we spoke, she exclaimed with exasperation, “Why is it that everyone in this town says we need more affordable housing—including elected officials— but then they don’t do anything about it?”

It was only after years as a fair and affordable housing advocate that I realized “do we need affordable housing?” is the wrong question to ask. It obfuscates the deeper, broader issue, which is about government’s role as a caretaker for all its people—what Michael Ignatieff, in The Needs of Strangers, calls “a shared language of the good.”

We have an opportunity today that must not be squandered. Not since the 1960s has a groundswell of Americans pushed for an end to disparities based on race, class, and geography. The coronavirus pandemic, murders of Black Americans by police, and economic upheaval have brought to light the ways in which public policy benefits some and harms others.

We have come to recognize that homogeneous suburbs, neighborhoods, subdivisions, and apartment buildings are unhealthy socially, economically, and morally. They are spiritually demoralizing as well because equating community with bricks and sticks rather than people is alienating and dehumanizing.

As more energized, newly minted activists throw their hats into the electoral ring, how can we talk about affordable housing in the context of building community?

“What Kind of Community Do We Want to Be?”

 Just as changing the phrase “global warming” to “climate change” in public opinion polls broadened consensus for action (in addition to more accurately describing the phenomenon), so will rephrasing the question about “affordable housing” to “mixed-income housing.” That word change aims the housing focus on us, not “the other.”

My epiphany happened in 1999, when I ran Open Communities in the Chicago area, then called the Interfaith Housing Center of the Northern Suburbs. I participated in a small evening gathering of Glencoe residents and religious leaders with the village president at a church. He talked about his vision of creating the first affordable senior housing in Glencoe, with condos selling in the $500,000 range. After we raised eyebrows over this “affordable” level, Rabbi Bruce Elder of Congregation Hakafa said the real question we should be asking ourselves is not what kind of housing do we want but “what kind of Glencoe do we want to be.”

Since then, I have come to see that when we ask ourselves this underlying question about the kind of community we want to be, we’re not thinking about our four walls and property values, but about the larger place we share with others. I witnessed this in a highly participatory community forum in Skokie. Just read the voluminous responses to the question, “What do we need to do individually and collectively to maintain and strengthen the things that we value about living in Skokie?” and you will see that affordable housing is but one of a laundry list of aspects of a community that residents value.

Put in this way, housing isn’t the center of the universe any more than the Earth is the center of the Milky Way. Housing serves community.

Here are 10 more ways to talk about affordable housing in the context of building community.

No. 1: Call It “Mixed-Income Housing”

What we’re really grappling with when we’re looking at a proposed development or a housing plan for our town is how we house a diversity of people. Consider inclusionary zoning, or affordable housing set-asides, which is private multifamily development designed to house people at various income levels. Where inclusionary zoning is mandatory—that is, when developers can’t buy their way out of providing below-market rate units in their buildings—it is a A typical income mix under inclusionary zoning targets 85 percent of units for wealthier people and 15 percent for low- to moderate-income families.

Another way to foster a mixed-income community is through a housing trust fund that provides rental subsidies that are either granted to specific low-income families for the market-rate housing of their choice, or to a landlord for a specific block of apartments.

No. 2: It’s a Cost of Doing Business

Developers and municipalities have pushed back on including below-market rate housing in their developments with claims they can’t afford it. They might call it “social engineering” in a derogatory fashion, as if the way that communities look were not the result of generations of policies of segregation from restrictive zoning codes and covenants. Public officials can respond by saying it’s a cost of doing business in town. Just as some localities require installing sprinkler systems in new buildings or employing union labor in construction, so does the municipality require a percentage of units to be affordable to families at certain income levels. A municipality can allow for flexibility in the design and total number of units to meet the developer part way, but the point is that having consistent rules ensures that all neighborhoods of a town are treated the same.

No. 3: Affordable Housing Is a Resource like Trees

Read the fine print: Most affordability periods expire unless ordinances or loan documents are rewritten. If the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit is used in Illinois, after 15 years the developer can raise rents. Most inclusionary zoning ordinances incorporate a sunset period; in Chicago, it’s 30 years. But we all know that in our economic reality where the cost of living rises faster than wages, an affordable housing unit that reverts to market rate is gone forever. Follow the lead of municipalities, such as Highland Park, Illinois, that protect their affordable housing in perpetuity by putting these units under the ownership or control of a community land trust, a nonprofit organization that owns and controls land and regulates what is built on it. A deed restriction can also preserve affordability for 99 years.

No. 4: All People Are Worthy

Opponents dismiss affordable housing because they think it is for people who are in some way defective. In this view, people seeking low-cost housing don’t work hard enough; they might even be trying to defraud taxpayers. Bring on the trader, doctor, engineer, CEO, or lawyer who, skeptics say, don’t need a “handout.”

Is not the mortgage interest tax deduction a multibillion dollar “handout”? Value is a social construct. Elected leaders shouldn’t fall into the trap of measuring a resident’s value by the amount of money they make or inherit. At the top of their field, even the very best emergency medical technician, preschool teacher, cab driver, grocery bagger, or social worker will earn only so much money. The same goes for older people and people with disabilities who live on Social Security or SSI, or people who are unemployed. Does that mean we don’t want them in our town?

In 2011, the affluent and predominantly white Chicago suburb of Winnetka was deeply divided over a modest affordable housing plan. The Rev. Paul Allen, a widely regarded community leader, preached on the topic, and this was the most talked-about part of the sermon: “A recent letter to the editor ended with the question: ‘Would you like to live next door to your maid?’ Hm! Well… What would you say?” Allen zeroed in on the incontrovertible heart of the matter: “Is reality seen as a set of shelves, getting smaller the higher up you go? Is our worth dependent on getting from lower shelves to higher ones? Do we have to make sure our friends are the people on our shelf or a higher one? Do we use the people on lower shelves to clean our homes but never, never get close to them?”

No. 5: Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way

One misconception about inviting below-market rate housing is that taxpayers will have to foot the bill. Private developers argue that lower-cost units will not support financing costs or minimum profits. But a government committed to mixed-income housing takes this into account and makes accommodations for the developer, like allowing additional market rate units, waiving particular fees, or lowering parking requirements since lower-income families tend to own fewer cars. New housing and the residents who live in it generate revenue. As Habitat for Humanity points out, when people’s housing expenses are within their means, they recycle their dollars back into the community as consumers.

No. 6: Life Doesn’t Segregate

Lilo and Michel Salmon, the founders of Housing Opportunities and Maintenance for the Elderly (H.O.M.E.), the Chicago nonprofit organization I direct, often pointed out that life doesn’t segregate by age, so why should we? H.O.M.E.’s affordable housing is intergenerational, and some of our housing is communal with shared meals and activities. Everyone benefits when all age groups interact with one another. But developers, with the support of municipalities, segment the market into distinct population types. They decide that “young professionals” and “empty nesters” should live near transit and downtowns in small apartments, away from families with children. This is wrong. The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination against families with children unless the building is designated for older adults.

Segregation by race or income are social constructs as well.  What compelling reason could there possibly be for having homogeneous or gated communities?

No. 7: Promoting a Mixed-Income Housing Portfolio Promotes Economic Stability, and Racial and Ethnic Diversity

People of color, people with disabilities, and families headed by women tend to earn less than households headed by white, able-bodied men. Having a housing stock at various price points, sizes, types, and structures attracts and preserves a diverse population. It helps families stay together as some people downsize and others gain independence.

The cost of an overwhelmingly single-family housing stock is transience. Where there is no industry or retail to share the load, homeowners bear a high property-tax burden to pay for schools. This is something Winnetka has grappled with. As its own Plan Commission summarized, “Winnetka’s housing stock increasingly serves only one kind of resident—a family at the peak of its earning years and with school-age children”; this is the resident that moves out after their youngest child graduates from New Trier High School. Just as investment advisers recommend having a diverse set of financial holdings to promote stability, so should a government invest in a diverse and inclusive housing portfolio.

No. 8: Think Regionally, Act Locally . . .  and Regionally

Wealthy neighborhoods  flourish as they do because of the exploitation of people or land elsewhere. People of color are too often relegated to low-wage jobs and housing near toxic dumps. Some towns will smugly say that they have met their “quota” of affordable housing, as if lower-income people can only be tolerated in small doses.

 No. 9: A Mixed-Income Community Is All About Us; There Is No “Other”

We need community as much as we need housing. The most successful messaging about affordable housing tells the stories of the real people behind the data. These are the people we interact with regularly who are quietly sacrificing meals just to stay in their home, or for whom long commutes to a job-rich but housing-poor suburb mean they come home too late to help their children with homework.

No. 10: A Mixed-Income Community Is Morally Right

No one said it better than Justice Morris Pashman of the New Jersey Supreme Court when it ruled against the exclusionary practices of the Township of Mount Laurel back in 1975. Justice Pashman in his concurring opinion explains in very human terms what this decision should mean for the people:

“[M]any suburban communities have failed to learn the lesson of cultural pluralism. A homogeneous community, one exhibiting almost total similarities of taste, habit, custom and behavior is culturally dead, aside from being downright boring . . .

“Many suburban communities have failed to recognize to whom the environment actually belongs. By environment, I mean not just land or housing, but air and water, flowers and green trees. There is a real sense in which clean air belongs to everyone, a sense in which green trees and flowers are everyone’s right to see and smell. The right to enjoy these is connected to a citizen’s right to life, to pursue his own happiness as he sees fit provided his pursuit does not infringe another’s rights.

“The people of New Jersey should welcome the result reached by the Court in this case, not merely because it is required by our laws, but, more fundamentally, because the result is right and true to the highest American ideals.”

I congratulate elected leaders who want to do the right thing as stewards of the people. Political will for mixed-income housing comes from each official’s appreciation of our common humanity.

This article first appeared on Patch.

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