Just saying no to affordable housing

UPDATED 3/18/2015 – Poor people belong in cities, not in suburbs, and definitely not in mine. Sleep in your car, on a sofa in your cousin’s house, under a bridge — anywhere but next door to me. These messages came across loud and clear in a spate of recent articles focused on housing for low-income people.

Carver is the latest reported angry example of a community rejecting housing for low income or even moderate income people. Carver is quaint, one woman said in a public meeting. That’s why we moved here. We don’t want apartments. Those people don’t belong here. Oh, it’s okay if they come and clean our houses or make coffee for us at Starbucks, but we don’t want them here after sundown, and we definitely don’t want their children in our schools.

CLARIFICATION, 3/18/2015: And a hat tip to Sean Olson, who tweeted that, despite the angry rhetoric and petition-signing from many residents, “Carver’s City Council approved the development 5-0.”

That’s pretty much what the latest report from Myron Orfield found, too. Wealthy suburbs and neighborhoods don’t want poor people. Poor people can’t live there, even with Section 8 housing vouchers, because landlords won’t rent to them. Housing subsidies are scarce, and even when a family waits for years and years and finally gets a voucher to help them pay rent, landlords in “good” neighborhoods turn them away. That keeps the Twin Cities metro area segregated, and segregation is getting worse, not better, as the years go by. The Orfield report says we have “the nation’s worst segregation in a predominantly white area.” Orfield says the Twin Cities metro area abandoned a Met Council plan that would require suburbs to accept building of a “fair share” of moderate and low-income housing units.

“They” don’t want to live in suburbs, the nay-sayers insist. “They” are happier living with their own kind in poor neighborhoods with poor schools. Anyway, “they” don’t have cars and we don’t have public transportation to get them to jobs.

Never mind that lots of jobs are out in the suburbs, inaccessible to city dwellers without cars except by hours-long bus commutes.

The Star Tribune reported that Carver’s mayor and city council applied for “$1.2 million Met Council grant for the 68-unit workforce housing project,” only to be met by angry residents demanding that they abandon the plan. According to the Strib report, a different kind of subsidy led to Carver’s growth “from 1,300 people at the turn of the century to 4,200 today,” with average incomes greater than those of Edina. The subsidy that let Carver grow and prosper? “Much faster commutes thanks to the extension of Hwy. 212.”

In short: subsidized highways for upper income suburbanites commuting to high-paying jobs — good. Subsidized housing for middle and low-income people, including those who work in the suburbs — bad. I know I’m not alone in seeing something wrong with these equations.

Apartment construction is booming across the metro area, but not for moderate and low-income families. If you flip burgers at McDonald’s or take care of fragile elderly residents at a nursing home, you can’t afford “market-rate” apartments. The average apartment rent in the Twin Cities passed $1000 per month last year and keeps going up.

The building boom makes lots of high-rent apartments available, but affordable housing for moderate and low-income people remains scarce to non-existent. Part of the reason: it’s more profitable to build high-rent apartments, so builders choose to do that.

Public housing — built and owned by the government with rents pegged at a percentage of family income — seemed like a good idea in the 1960s. Instead of building human-scale housing, cities put thousands of families with children in high rise apartments in densely crowded housing projects. Most of these have been torn down. In theory, public housing money was then shifted to scattered site housing distributed throughout many neighborhoods. That led to NIMBY responses, and basically ended all money for new public housing.

The next solution: Section 8 vouchers that would pay a portion of rental cost and allow the family to choose housing in any neighborhood. The catch: landlords don’t have to accept Section 8 vouchers, so good luck finding an apartment. Oh, and there are so few Section 8 vouchers available that the waiting list — the waiting list — to get a voucher only opens every few years. Bill Lindeke eloquently described the process:

“Tens of thousands of people sign up for a chance to win a golden ticket that entitles them to rent an affordable place to live. But – and here’s the ironic twist – even if they win, the ticket is only good for a spot on a waiting list. It might take a decade to cash in, and even if you last that long, you only have 60 days to use the housing voucher. For some families, especially in a tight market, that might not be enough time to find a home before the voucher expires, along with the dream of a stable place to live.”

Vacancy rates for rentals are low. Vacancy rates for low-rent apartments are even lower.

Government housing policy has turned from building homes or subsidizing rent for low-income families to subsidizing builders. Tax breaks and other incentives go to builders who promise to reserve a few units for “affordable” housing, while charging market rate and higher for most units. That’s not working for two reasons. First, there’s not enough money. Second, the money that exists gets channeled into more low-income housing in already low-income communities.

According to the Star Tribune, “The Metropolitan Council estimated the region needs to add 5,667 affordable units per year to meet the need by 2020. Fewer than 3,000 units have been built over the past three years.”

When someone who is working full-time can’t afford an apartment, that’s a societal failure, not a personal problem. Housing is one problem that the market is not solving.

As a community and a country, we know how to use subsidies and rental housing and supportive services to house low-income families. We even know how to end homelessness. And we are not doing it.

Want to do something about it? Tell Congress, tell legislators, talk to your friends and family, raise consciousness. We can do better than this.

More on housing and homelessness

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Just saying no to affordable housing

  1. Pingback: Good news, bad news for dogs, cats and renters | News Day

  2. Pingback: Rich renters wanted — the rest of you can leave | News Day

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