By Jeffrey Lubell
Jeffrey Lubell will serve as presenter and facilitator for the interactive Leadership Training Seminar, "Creating Housing Opportunities for Working Families " at the Congress of Cities and Exposition on November 29 in Boston, Massachusetts.
With signs growing that the housing market may finally be on the mend in much of the country, many policymakers are turning their attention back to the question of how to ensure that families of all incomes can find affordable housing in their local community.
The issue is not at all straightforward. On the one hand, home prices are close to their lowest levels in many years. On the other hand, rents have risen in many areas, many households have lost their jobs and many more cannot qualify for a mortgage due to credit problems and tightening mortgage standards. As the economy recovers, home prices and rents are expected to rise. How should communities respond?
The data indicates that, notwithstanding the sharp decline in home prices, the housing problems of many working families have actually worsened in recent years due to declines in income, rising rents and homeownership costs for existing homeowners that have not declined nearly as fast as incomes or home prices.[i] Remember that most of today’s homeowners bought their homes before the downturn in the housing market, so have not benefitted from lower prices (though some have been able to refinance at lower interest rates).
Adding to the problem is the fact that during the boom years, many areas achieved lower cost housing by building further and further away from jobs and other necessary destinations, increasing transportation costs as well as commute times, energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.
As a study by the Center for Housing Policy and the Center for Neighborhood Technology recently found, the combined costs of housing and transportation in the 25 largest metro areas increased much faster than incomes since 2000, leading to worsening affordability challenges.[ii]
Federal housing policy focuses most of its attention on households at the lowest and highest end of the income spectrum, providing comparatively little support for moderate- and middle-income families. The lowest income households receive priority for Section 8 vouchers, public housing and multi-family assisted housing, but many moderate-income households earn too much to qualify for these priorities, but too little to benefit from the mortgage interest deduction.
There is much that local communities can do to help expand housing opportunities for moderate- and middle-income households, but it requires a willingness to think outside the box of federal housing policy. Leaders must focus on all the levers at the disposal of local government, including zoning and land use policy, tax policy and effective planning. It also requires coordination across policy silos that do not always work closely together; housing officials must coordinate with their counterparts in the health, environment and transportation fields.
Communities can expand the supply of homes affordable to working families by developing a comprehensive housing policy that brings together a series of coordinated actions by local agencies responsible for planning, zoning, land use, permitting, transportation and affordable housing. Yet, in order to build the political will necessary to secure the adoption of these policies, communities must demonstrate that the benefits extend beyond better housing outcomes. Improved public and family health, stronger educational outcomes, reductions in energy use and greenhouse gas emissions and declines in public infrastructure expenditure must all be intended results of an effective housing policy.
Jeffrey Lubell is the Executive Director of the Center for Housing Policy.
[i] Laura Williams. 2012. Housing Landscape 2012: An Annual Look at the Housing Affordability Challenges of America’s Working Households. Washington, DC: Center for Housing Policy. [ii] Robert Hickey et. al. 2012. Losing Ground: The Struggle of Moderate-Income Households to Afford the Rising Costs of Housing and Transportation. Washington, DC and Chicago, IL: Center for Housing Policy and Center for Neighborhood Technology.