Liberal Affordable Housing Conundrums

Ideas and Issues

New Orleans   Just maybe there is beginning to be an emerging consensus in the United States, joining many other countries around the world, that there is in fact an affordable housing crisis in the country.   Perhaps I should clarify this quickly.  Let’s say that among liberals there is a growing agreement when it comes to the pricing barriers to homeownership in cities of choice.  We still seem to be miles away from any shared understanding about the crisis in rents and evictions, but that’s another matter it seems.

We can see this in the recent actions of the tech behemoths in the greater Bay Area encompassing Silicon Valley and northern California.  Google and Facebook both committed a billion a piece and now Apple, with a $100 billion plus horde in the bank, says it is good for $2.5 billion all in the name ostensibly of providing affordable housing in the area to keep it “livable” and of course for the public relations value.  Make no mistake though, this is not a philanthropic gift, but all the libertarian techies are clear they see this as a way to make money.

Does it add up?  Well, as one reporter at the New York Times noted, at $450,000 average home price that might be 10,000 houses, maybe more since in some cases the companies have already paid for the land.  Once again, the calculation is based on home purchase prices, rather than the cost or units available in larger multi-family, multi-unit schemes.

Others have argued that California alone needs some 3.5 million units of new housing by 2025, making this a drop in the bucket.  The Bay Area gained 676,000 people in recent years with 176,000 units of new housing.  Most experts believe that you need to build one new unit for every 1.5 new residents to meet housing needs.  All of this means they are falling behind as fast as they are claiming to be trying to respond and catch up.

Mother Jones made the case with detailed data that nationally housing prices are about where they have always been with the exception of handful of places –including New York and the Bay Area. Minneapolis has pushed ahead around the issue of single family zoning to allow more multi-unit construction.  Meanwhile essayists for the New Yorker try to dismiss rent control as if it were a recurring strain of Ebola in West Africa.

Why isn’t more of the conversation about density, rebuilding in existing communities with more four and eight-unit building?  Condo owners seem to like high-rise buildings, why aren’t we talking about more multi-story apartment buildings with affordable units?  In New Orleans we see one office building after another being converted to apartment units, but instead of discovering more affordable housing, we wake up later to see that these are faux-hotels with zoning allowances so that can offer the majority of units for short-term rental.  Meanwhile every effort to build or rebuild more public housing unleashes a storm of controversy with the NIMBY folks, talking out of both sides of their mouths.

We need to move past the homeownership obsession and start talking about mass housing programs for the millions of families desperate for affordable housing anywhere and any place they can find it.


Ukrainian Phone Call by Robert Sarazin Blake

Thanks to KABF.