HOUSING - THE OPPORTUNITY AND THE DIVIDE
It was one of those scenes I can never resist. Fred, a postal worker, stopped his work and ask if I knew what I was taking a photo of. I told him my camera always found karma in open urban space with an interesting colorful subject in the distance. Fred laughed and said, “It’s interesting alright. The opportunity and the divide.”
I ask him what he meant. He continued to sort though the mail and deposit it in the postal box complex near where I parked.
“You see, I used to walk the streets and deliver mail to the housing complex in the distance. That’s before they put this infernal central mail box in.” He looked across at the housing again and then said, “A government experiment in helping the low income that never really fulfilled its dream. Most of the people remain a part of the city, but apart from the wealth of it. That’s public housing for you, it divides.”
Fred pointed to the unused urban expanse between us and the complex. “The opportunity, everybody wants this open ground. You have the low income housing coalition that want more units. And look around, what do you see? Nothing but high end dense living apartment complexes. They want the space for more profit. This is not to mention the homeless or the working poor who need homes. But who am I to offer a solution, I just deliver the mail and observe the life around me.”
Days later the scene I photographed, the experience and discussion with Fred lingered. It prompted me to do some more research into the subject of Urban Housing. The results drew me further into the dilemma facing cities.
Housing is supposed to be a foundational block toward success. It hasn’t always worked out that way for all people. Has public housing and other social programs helped or trapped the low income in poverty? There is much debate on this subject.
Housing assistance is just one of the six major welfare programs. Others include TANE (temporary assistance for needy families), Medicaid, CHIPS (Child Health Insurance Assistance), SNAP (food stamps), and SSI (Supplemental Security).
I know from volunteering with social service organizations that piecing together these programs for improvised self sufficiency is not easy. They don’t just send you a check. You have to apply and meet requirements to stay eligible. Even if you do, it is tough to generate more than $2,000 monthly in benefits.
I admire the fortitude of people caught in poverty and their efforts to make ends meet. Many strive to make outside income, only to find their benefits decreased. It is a tough balancing act and one that often keeps you in poverty.
In public housing, rent is capped at 30% of income received and averages $536 per unit nationally.
As Fred says, “They can build all the affordable housing they want, but those rents usually exceed $1,000. It’s too big of a leap for people now in public assisted housing. And that’s even if they find a job.”
However, new affordable housing can help many low income workers and the 83 million millennials. The millennial population on average spends 45% of their income on housing, usually rental units. That’s much higher than the 30% suggested by the financial experts. Home ownership for millennials has dropped 42% over the last decade compared to other generations. Millennials find it difficult to purchase homes because of being underemployed, large student debt and slow wage growth. Affordable housing could close this gap.
It is estimated that over 4.6 million new housing units will be needed by 2030. Not surprising that an open urban area would be attractive to developers wanting to build new high rise apartments in a dense living setting.
All this is not even considering the needs of the urban homeless. These “deep poor” need the bare essentials of living to turn their situation around.
As Fred said as he departs, “If we meet here again, I am not sure what we will find. Maybe a luxury apartment or maybe a tent city.”
These are factions and dilemmas facing urban leaders. Novel approaches and plans are being considered by many cities. The recently highlighted Minneapolis plan 2040 seeks “equitable growth and social stability.” In short, housing for all to keep the fabric of the city together. To make it work for all.
Common threads in this and other city plans are: 1) Dropping zoning requirements to create dense living. 2) More money for creative alternatives to assisted housing. 3) Lowing the number of parking places required for new developments. 4) Incentives for building close to transportation, service and work. 5) Lowering Code requirements, so that older buildings can be more easily converted to housing units. 6) Leveraging public policy and community action to help assure some of the vacant lots remaining in cities will be used for affordable housing.
These are all important moves. One I think is perhaps the most promising is the establishment of Development Labs and Opportunity Grants to turn developer thinking toward ways to make money in the affordable housing arena. These efforts bring together competing contingencies, government incentives and most important, enterprise money.
The world is full of luxury goods and that seems to be where much of the attention of business growth is. Often overlooked are people needs at all levels. Needs are the hot bed of making money. The needs of the overlooked portions of the urban housing market may ironically represent a new business opportunity.
Fred was right, I was looking at a the “Opportunity and the Divide” when I took my photo across the open field. One can only hope that it becomes the opportunity for all the people of the city.
“The 6 Major Welfare Programs” and “US Welfare Programs, the Myths Versus the Facts” by Kimberly Amadeo
“The Welfare Trap: Maze of Programs Punishes Work” by Charles Hughes, fee.org
“Welfare Offers Short Term Help and Long Term Poverty, Thanks to Asset Tests” by Jeffrey Dorfman, Forbes.com
“Solving Affordable Housing: Creative Solutions around the U.S. by Patrick Sisson, curbed.com
“Minneapolis City Council Adopts 2040 Plan” by Dan Genderson, mprnews.org
“How You Can Help Fix America’s Affordable Housing Crisis (And Earn Returns in the Process)” by Eddie Lorin, Forbes.com
“A New Approach to Solving the US Housing Crisis” by Rebecca Regan, ssir.org
“Six Possible Solutions to Affordable Housing Crisis” by Robert Samuels, washingtonpost.com