Affordable Housing Push-out Problems in Vancouver, New York, and London

affordable-housing-crisisBristol     Reading the news is one thing but watching the steady stream of young people and many not so young at the Rock & Bowl hostel in central Bristol where we have been staying for the last several days underscores the affordable housing push-out.  New residents with jobs of all kinds are paying 10-15 pounds per day while they look for housing around Bristol, which is a long way from the executive city, mega-development high priced housing in other world cities, like Vancouver, New York, and London.

A recent piece in the New Yorker detailed the bizarre contradictions of housing prices in Vancouver.  A professor we know called Vancouver an “executive” city a dozen years ago, meaning only executives could afford to live there, and certainly almost all of ACORN’s members have been pushed out farther and farther to Burnaby, Surrey, and beyond.  The New Yorker story focused on the fact that the housing market has become almost a hedge for global capital, especially from China and other Asian countries, to invest in housing as a refuge investment, even while left unoccupied.

An London-based organizer sitting in on ACORN International’s meetings in Bristol told us at length of the difficulty of characterizing many boroughs in London since slums, council housing, and upscale housing and mansions were all crowding in on each other.  She also told us of whole blocks of fancy mansions which left whole blocks vacant year round, also as a sort of refuge home or at best occasional location, but with no people they are starving out small shopkeepers since despite the old adage of “location, location, location” assumed people actually lived in those locations.  She also told us of the difficulties of finding even starter houses, or “ladder” houses as she called them, for homeownership.  London banks even several years ago had been willing to make loans for “shared” housing, where two, three, or more unrelated individuals could pool their resources to qualify to buy a house, but those kinds of loans have largely disappeared.

As disturbing was reading in the Times about the policy dilemma created by the soaring cost of New York City housing even within the framework of existing inclusionary zoning regulations.  The program currently is voluntary meaning that developers can create 20% of the units at affordable rates in order to increase density by one-third.  The rents are so high that the subsidy in many cases might be as much as $90,000 per year.  Some developers not only walk away from creating affordable units because of the cost, but even some housing advocates are arguing that more affordable units might be created with a cash exchange rather than an apartment provision especially in Manhattan.  In places like Williamsburg in Brooklyn, plain vanilla apartment blocks with increased density in cheaper rental areas don’t have the amenities, but relatively speaking are holding rents down.  Mayor de Blasio has proposed moving exclusionary zoning to a mandatory program, but it could be that bartering for cash with the developers creates more housing, almost like the Mumbai program where developers have to build replacement units for those they tear down.

As much as we have to want our major cities to not simply be enclaves for the rich, I have to wonder about the lives of our moderate income families trying to make it as a small minority of the population in cities where not only the housing but everything else is tilted towards serving the rich. Even if they were fortunate enough to barely afford shelter, could they find any other provisions or services affordable where the urban 1% have now occupied?

We are in danger of having major cities converted to the equivalent of gated, island communities with moats made of insurmountable walls of money.

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