Affordable Housing: A Tale of Two (or Three) Cities

In a few days, I’m hopefully going to write a few pieces about education. It’s something I obviously care about as a college educator (the basic gist can sort of be found here). Until then, there will be some smaller posts.

Yesterday, Colbert King wrote about the effect gentrification is having on lower- and middle-class renters in Washington D.C. Affordable rent is an important concern for the Mad Biologist (since he has personally donated so much of his income to landlords). King’s solution is to increase the amount of units per development set aside for lower- and middle-class renters (and perhaps purchasers). My experience has tought me differently: if you want to help most renters, create a housing glut.

When I lived in New Haven, CT (1991-97), there was a housing glut because changes in section 8 housing vouchers (they became more portable as part of a Bush administration plan to break up urban voting blocs) and because the city had built the Ninth Street Square development to ease housing pressures. As a result there was a massive outflow of lower-income families to surrounding Hamden, resulting in a housing glut. This meant that rents stayed very low. (In fact, through the ’90s, much of CT had very low rents because of a state-wide housing glut). What helped New Haven improve in the ’90s was that young people who didn’t earn high salaries could afford to live in New Haven.

Likewise, in Providence, RI, Buddy Cianci helped revitalize Providence by building over 1,200 rental apartments in an “artistic district.” Providence, too, has relatively low rents, and also has become a great place to live; a friend has moved his business to Providence from Long Island, NY mostly because housing is affordable in Providence.

What these two examples have in common is that low rents improve the quality of life. They do so by making ‘entry-level’ rents accessible to younger, lower-income workers. Compare this to Long Island, where business owners have a hard time attracting and retaining younger workers because the cost of housing is so high. Stony Brook University, where I am currently faculty, has a harder time attracting graduate students and Ph.Ds because the cost of housing is so high relative to other areas–although not Washington (~50-100% higher than Providence or New Haven). A community needs younger workers to remain economically vital: low rents are crucial to keeping young workers.

How do you lower rents? Housing development. Simply, local, state, and the federal governments need to build affordable housing in areas that have high rents. I’m not talking about building another Cabrini Greens–these developments would be primarily targeted at lower- and middle-class earners. It would also be nice if public officials stopped worrying about home ownership, and, instead, worried about affordable housing (call me cynical, but maybe campaign donations from mortage companies has something to do with this?). Fat chance this will happen as long as El Supremo is president…

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