Cities Housing Workers for the Rich in Resort Zones

Worker Housing in Vail

Worker Housing in Vail

New Orleans  In the popular ski resort and playground towns of the mountain west like Vail and Breckenridge, Colorado or Jackson, Wyoming, home of former vice-president Dick Cheney and many of the mega-rich, housing prices are as steep as the mountains themselves, sometimes soaring to $5 million a pop. Average home price sales increased by almost a quarter in the last year in Jackson to $1.2 million a house.

Who cares, because that’s the problem for the rich, and they can afford it, but what about the serfs on these snow mounds where the classic contradictions of American inequality are rampant. There are more service sector jobs on offer than there are workers who can grab them and many of them are forced to pay more than the minimum wage, but workers can’t afford to live in these towns that draw immigrant and itinerant labor like magnets. The stories of workers’ commutes throughout the mountain west and their desperate living conditions are now commonplace in feature stories in High Country News, published in Colorado and even The New York Times.

Nothing new about all that, but what is it about a town with a permanent population of hardly 5000 people like Vail that has this peanut sized city becoming the owner of 3200 units of affordable worker housing with plans to spend $30 million more to add to it? Other cities have converted motels into worker dormitories, build condos, and hired city employees to make sure that affordable city rental units are not being re-purposed as vacation rentals on the scam.

Two questions come to mind?

First, why are the ski resort businesses not being forced to provide more decent and affordable housing for their workers?

Secondly, and more importantly, if these small, rich towns can saddle up and build and maintain affordable worker housing, why can’t more cities around the country accept the same responsibility?

For more than thirty years the federal government has been disinvesting in the housing markets in urban American and slimming down their public housing inventory. Other than some few exceptions, like New York City, that prove the rule, most cities do not take the initiative to support or build affordable housing for workers that would also temper some of the housing shortages that have made housing costs and rent payments equal more than half of many worker’s living costs. This is true in many of the executive cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and Boston, but it is also true in places like New Orleans as well that endure a disconnect between wages and rents.

In post-Katrina New Orleans there were numerous proposals for worker housing, but none of them got built and none of them were sponsored by the city or any level of government. There are now even private developer proposals for co-housing developments in the iconic Lower Ninth Ward.

We need cities and states to step up and shoulder a bigger share of the responsibility to provide affordable housing for lower waged workers and their families before we wake up and find all of urban America is Vail without the mountains, pricing out workers, while becoming playgrounds for the rich without a care or concern for the workers that make it all possible.

Integrating the Suburbs

Chicago.CBL.protest-aKiln, Mississippi    Peter Drier, comrade, housing expert, and professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles, made an interesting point in a piece he wrote recently about segregation. Reflecting on Ferguson, Missouri, although it could have been hundreds of places he wrote:

Sociologists have invented a way to measure segregation called the “index of dissimilarity,” which shows the percentage of black (or Latino, or Asian) households that would have to move to achieve racial balance across the region. In the St. Louis area, at least 70 percent of all black families would have to move if every part of the metro area was to have a mix of black and white families that reflects their proportion in the entire region.

We’re talking Katrina-level displacement in one urban area after another. Little surprise that most community-based organizations concentrate on improving the communities where low-and-moderate income families, who are often also minorities, live, rather than making their major campaign integrating the suburbs.

Drier is clear that if that were our mission, we would be taking on a mission of Herculean proportions. Our people can’t handle the sticker shock of the suburbs, when means finding affordable apartments, but

…there simply aren’t enough apartment units in most suburbs, especially the more affluent ones. This is due to the widespread practice of suburban “exclusionary zoning”—not only in St. Louis, but in most metro areas. Rentals comprise half of all housing units in cities, but only one-quarter of those in suburbs, and many suburbs have almost no rental housing at all. The Section 8 program won’t help break down residential segregation if there aren’t enough suburban apartments to rent. It would be like giving people food stamps when the supermarket shelves are empty.

The last nationwide study of the Section 8 program’s success rate, conducted in 2000, found that 31 percent of families with Section 8 vouchers couldn’t find an apartment to rent, but the figure varied from city to city; in Los Angeles, 53 percent of families with vouchers had to return them unused; in New York City, 43 percent of the families with vouchers came back empty-handed. The scarcity of apartments was certainly the major cause of families’ inability to take advantage of their housing subsidy, but racism played a role, too; the 2000 study found that whites had a higher success rate than blacks of using their Section 8 subsidy to rent an apartment.

There are things that can be done, and Peter lists several of them.

We can “ban discrimination by landlords,” and recent decisions of the United States Supreme Court should technically make that easier to do so because we would only have to prove “disparate impact,” rather than deliberate intent. But, private landlords do not have to accept Section 8 vouchers, the program is voluntary for them, so it would only be possible to punish landlords who were willing to allow Section 8 in the first place. Secondly, we could mandate that suburbs have to build a certain number of apartments not simply that a small number of any that are built have to be reserved as affordable. Thirdly, we could greatly expand the number of Section 8 vouchers. Though Section 8 is one of the largest housing programs for low-income families, it is based on a lottery and is not an entitlement only benefiting about 25% of those eligible, and that’s if they can find a place to use their vouchers, which many cannot. This is a vicious cycle that returns us back to square one in many cases.

We can hold our breath, but few of these recommendations are likely to find enough love in Congress and its Republican majority that survives largely because of its firm commitment to racial gerrymandering constructed on a legacy of racial segregation in suburban and exurban metropolitan areas that is vital to their future as well. Absent a new civil rights movement focused on integrating the suburbs and based on a consensus about its need and desirability that does not exist today, count on the “dissimilarity index” and the putative Republican majority both coexisting happily for years to come, even if a sad situation for the rest of us.

Is Co-living About Affordability or Gentrification?

JJ Chez Hacker House in San Francisco

JJ Chez Hacker House in San Francisco

New Orleans        Talking on Wade’s World on KABF  with Michael Robinson Cohen about his Yale School of Architecture studio project to design a hundred thousand affordable housing units for San Francisco, or any other city that understands the problem and the potential, led us naturally to co-living.  Michael and his gang believe there is tremendous promise in co-living for the emerging young precariat, drawn into the “gig” economy to a portfolio of jobs in tech and elsewhere that combine good prospects with speculative wages and a boom-and-bust income instability.  For these emerging young architects smaller spaces with increased common space holding both the necessities of kitchen, laundry, and even work spaces along with amenities to wash it all down more easily, points towards a potential solution on affordability that those of us working in the midst of a desperate shortage of affordable houses for low-and-moderate income working people also find attractive.

            Sadly, there currently seems to be more slips between the cup and the lip as the promise of this idea confronts the reality of developers who seem determined to warp co-living schemes into an upgrade in price and performance of college residential houses in the high-priced, red-hot real estate markets in New York, the Bay Area, Seattle and the like.  In post-Katrina New Orleans,  there had been a number of interesting proposals for affordable “worker housing” to help get the necessary labor into the city at affordable prices when rents had doubled in the wake of the storm.  None were built, though some smaller unit style developments for artists, largely white unfortunately, with section 8 certificates did emerge in several places. 

            Reading about co-living schemes in New York City and the Bay Area, developers seem to be rejecting affordability in favor of charging premium rents and reshaping co-living almost as connection clubs.  The New York Times talks about “hacker houses” like the ones touted in movies about Facebook.  In New York co-living seems also like staying in the Yale or Harvard Club, except on a longer timeline with interviews by the owners and potential house or suite-mates and probably the kind of blackballing still common in the fraternity scene.  As one of these smaller developers says, “…you can get a bedroom in New York for less than $2500.”  You can buy a mansion in many cities around the country if you’re willing to pay $2500 per month!

            A hipper and hungrier developer called Stage 3 Properties wants to build a co-living operation with 180 units to house 400 people and describes its mission as “passionately disrupting the housing industry by reimagining its process, product and price points and curating an all-inclusive cosmopolitan living experience designed for today’s creative class.”  I can guarantee that anytime you have the words, “reimagining,” “curating,” “cosmopolitan,” and “creative class” in the same sentence you better hold your wallet and purses with both hands because you are being shaken down for every penny while walking in knee high cow manure. 

            These rent-a-room hustles also are likely to have some problems with existing landlord tenant laws and single-room-occupancy rules in San Francisco and New York City for sure.  In the age of Uber though a lot of the hustlers think that rules to protect consumers or tenants are just rocks in the road on their way to riches, and therefore easily ignored.

           Co-living in practical and affordable housing could offer huge potential, but our friends and allies among planners and architects need to run, not walk, to beat the developers away from get-rich-schemes for themselves where desperate tenants and workers are overpaying and left again on the short end.

Gentrification Outstripping Community Development


Protest in Chinatown over Gentrification

 New Orleans      Josh Ishimatsu wrote an interesting piece for theRooflines blog managed by Shelterforce magazine that asks troubling questions about whether rapid development in the form of gentrification has outstripped community development efforts.  He might have even gone farther and asked whether community development corporations have too often been the nonprofit stalking horses for the gentrifiers?

He makes the case based on the superheated rents being charged in San Francisco’s Chinatown where rents of over $1000 per unit are being paid young people for SRO, single room occupancy, spaces of 100 square feet, allowing landlords to make huge profits, evict lower income tenants, and take advantage of the city’s desperate affordable housing crisis.   He could have made a similar case in any number of “executive” cities and neighborhoods in the throes of gentrification.   For example, community development corporations (CDCs) have long been headliners in Brooklyn in one neighborhood after another, many of which are now demographically unrecognizable compared to the same communities thirty or forty years ago.  The amount of federal, philanthropic, and city money poured into upgrading such communities now seems like little more than site-preparation expenditures for the current crew of developers.

David Rusk, the former mayor of Albuquerque, has made these points exhaustively in comprehensive studies of the work of CDCs that he originally prepared, ironically, on the foundations’ dime as an evaluator. He famously found that looking at a range of housing and economic indicators in scores of communities targeted by CDCs the only measurable progress in his study was in one community in Cincinnati.  Sadly, that neighborhood rang the bells because it was in the process of being gentrified, so that was less than good news.

Ishimatsu makes the point that mixed-income neighborhoods show economic mobility for lower income families, but concedes that the “return to the cities” is obliterating mixed income communities.  The mobility for low income families is largely now the fact that so many are being pushed out to somewhere else and these neighborhoods are becoming single income areas based on affordability.  Ishimatsu wonders if there are more programs and initiatives that can wedge affordable housing bunkers into these areas, but I wonder if these scare resources need to desert those fields and move to improve the quality of housing and development in lower income areas instead.

Why leverage more public and philanthropic funds with private dollars as low income site clearance when the private dollars will come anyway, sooner or later?  It might be better to finally create decent, affordable and livable neighborhoods for lower income families and improve living conditions and quality of life now, rather than mixing and matching.  He’s right that existing strategies are inadequate, but we need to rethink the places where we make our stand, not just the tools of the trade.


Please enjoy the Jayhawks, Waiting for the Sun. Thanks to Kabf.

Is Affordable Housing Being Crucified by Inequality

IKEA home in Sweden

IKEA home in Sweden

New Orleans      Increasingly it seems that we are going to have to decouple the issue of home ownership and affordable housing at least in the traditional sense of small footprints in the dirt with picket fences around them.  Home ownership due to harder loan standards, tighter credit, and the Great Recession has now fallen to 63.9% at the end of 2014, lower than at any point in the last 20 years.  A recent survey found that nine of the top eleven metro areas now have a majority of renters compared to homeowners led by Miami, New York, Boston, San Francisco, Houston, Washington, Dallas, and Chicago.

The trend towards “executive” cities like Seattle, Vancouver, London, and many others where housing  costs are atmospheric has foreclosed any opportunity for regular working families to consider home ownership in the classic, outdated “American Dream” sense of the term, unless they are willing and able to purchase cooperative apartments or condominiums.  Even while moving that dream off the shelf, the affordable housing crisis remains unabated unless we embrace some change.

How about manufactured housing?  I’ve got to admit I like my time living in Airstreams, and I’ve become friendly towards trailers. The Economist had nice things to say about “system-built” housing recently which also caught my eye:

“…system-built housing does not have to be shoddy or impersonal. Huf Haus of Germany has been building high-end prefabricated housing since 1912.  Adatahaus, a British firm specializes in homes that can be reconfigured as a family’s needs change.  IKEA of Sweden sells flat-pack houses that can be customized.  Furthermore, big companies can help people to self-build a personalized home while enjoying economies of scale:  Cemex of Mexico provides self-builders with access to cheap fixtures and fittings, and cheap finance, as well as cement.”

Ok, maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, but poking through Craigslist last night I saw a corrugated metal-sided and roofed structure on higher ground towards the Gulf of Mexico that looked beckoning.  Just saying.

Where would you site such housing?  Interestingly there is already a controversy breaking out in East New York on Mayor DeBlasio’s plan to protect affordable housing in that area, which many residents see as gentrification.  We’ve talked about the double-edged sword of “market rates” before, when the inequality of wages and wealth has perverted the market.  The deal that ACORN made in Brooklyn for over 2000 units of housing around the train tracks at Atlantic Yards has still not produced on that promise after more than a decade.

There’s vacant land though in many cities crying for company.  Turkey assembled 1600 square miles equal to 4% of the country’s urban area when  the national housing agency bought land from other state agencies.  China puts the hurt on developers sitting on property to force the issue by imposing a 20% tax on the value of land parcels left undeveloped for more than a year.

Meanwhile rent levels of 30% or more of income and mass numbers of roommates has become the norm in many cities.  One estimate has more than 20 million paying more than 30%.Looking at average rents in mid-south cities like Houston, New Orleans, Dallas, and Little Rock, we found the numbers on the average between $650 to $750 per month.  To make that nut an individual would need to make between $12 and $16 per hour if they were going to live by themselves.

Affordable housing is possible, but not without living wages and a strategy that values citizen wealth and family security as more important than a picket fence.

Attacks on Fair Housing and Affordable Housing Demands

rallyNew Orleans    Talking on “Wade’s World” on KABF with George Washington University sociology professor and frequent author, Gregory Squires, about his recent piece in Social Policy on the impact of the Occupy movement, he underlined his concern that the “disparate impact” theory is under review in the term of the US Supreme Court and the threat that decision could hold for fair housing advocates.  It’s worth the worry.

As a Justice Department official noted several months ago, real estate agents, landlords, and others have cleaned up their act so that there is little of what she called “pants-down discrimination,” in what they say, but there is still plenty in what they do, and the “disparate impact” theory has been the prevailing tool to assure fair housing without discrimination.  If the impact is discriminatory, regardless of the intent, then it has to stop so that diverse populations do not face housing discrimination.  HUD according to all reports is hustling to enshrine one single standard for disparate impact in regulations in hopes that the Supreme Court will follow its usual tendency of allowing the government and its regulations to prevail in the separation of powers.  Given the recent tendency of the Court’s majority to bend over backwards in pretending that the days of discrimination are over, it’s a valid fear for housing advocates.  The Justices might be persuaded to temper there 1950’s “good times are back again” viewpoints in the wake of Ferguson and New York City protests and disturbances, but we certainly can’t count on it.

We also talked about the ongoing “push out” of low and moderate income families from executive cities because they can’t afford the housing.   Squires and the DC-based community organization, ONE, Organization of the North East, have been campaigning for equitable development and have a 2nd conference on the issue coming to Washington soon.  Coincidentally, I had just heard from a colleague studying at the Yale School of Architecture about an assignment they have to try to design 100,000 units of affordable housing in San Francisco.  It’s not academic when you read recently that experts are referring to the Tenderloin, the San Francisco district known largely for union local headquarters and derelicts over the years, as the last “working class neighborhood” in the city.

Ottawa ACORN was also in the news on the same kind of issue in Canada, where they are putting on pressure to win “inclusionary zoning” that would establish affordable housing as a mandatory requirement in any new housing development over a certain size.

Ottawa ACORN coordinator Curtis Bulatovich said they want inclusionary zoning and hope a private members bill, introduced in Queens Park by Etobicoke-Lakeshore Liberal MPP Peter Milczyn, is approved. It would give cities the power to mandate a certain percentage of total units as affordable housing in residential development of 20 or more units that require by-law amendments.  “We wouldn’t have as many “ghettos” in this city and cities across the province. It would be an affordable enough thing for developers to do and it would also show that they are giving back to their communities,” Bulatovich told CFRA News. He said the time to act is now.

“In a lot of areas, specifically Westboro, you have a lot of empty, beautiful newly built condominium (units) and I was thinking you could easily, easily have those to inclusionary zoning.”

He could have added “before it’s too late,” which increasingly seems to be the crisis we’re facing in a number of cities in the United States and in places like London and Paris around the globe.