The growing housing affordability crisis that is making it increasingly difficult for millions of middle-class households to buy a home or afford their rent could have grave repercussions for the economy unless policymakers take immediate action.
So it is particularly heartening that President Trump is making housing a top priority by issuing an executive order that focuses on the need to resolve regulatory challenges that are hindering the production of badly needed quality, affordable housing.
Despite a solid demand for home ownership and attractive mortgage interest rates, prospective buyers have become increasingly hesitant to purchase homes at today’s prices given current income levels.
Other factors contributing to the mounting lack of affordable housing include: a shortage of construction workers; rising costs of building materials aggravated by tariffs on Canadian lumber and steel and aluminum imports from China; higher permitting costs; a lack of build-able lots; growing mortgage liquidity concerns; and stiff zoning restrictions.
These issues helped push housing affordability near a 10-year low in the first quarter of 2019, according to the latest National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)/Wells Fargo Housing Opportunity Index. Nationwide just six out of 10 buyers can afford a typical home.
A national survey conducted by Morning Consult on behalf of NAHB confirms the severity of the problem. Nearly three out of four American households (73 percent) believe that a lack of affordable housing is a problem in the U.S., and 58 percent said that if they decided to purchase a home in the near future, they would have trouble finding a home they could afford in their city or county.
The president’s executive order cites the need to rein in excessive regulations that are contributing to the nation’s mounting housing affordability woes. On average, government regulations account for nearly 25 percent of the price of building a single-family home and more than 30 percent of the cost of a typical multifamily development.
Policymakers at all levels of government must work with industry leaders to ease regulatory burdens and keep housing within reach for all Americans. The need to act now is especially urgent given that housing has generally underperformed thus far in 2019 even as GDP growth of 3.2 percent for the first quarter has exceeded analysts’ expectations. Until affordability conditions improve, housing will continue to hamper overall economic growth.
Of course, housing is primarily a local issue. Generally driven by local sentiment, restrictive policies that limit or even prohibit various types of homes and make large areas off-limits to new construction contribute significantly to the affordability problem. This is why localities must be given incentives to ease restrictions that are making it increasingly difficult for builders to produce affordable homes.
The federal government has an important role to play as well. Congress can help ease a chronic labor shortage in the housing industry that is resulting in higher construction costs, increased home prices and reduced economic output. Lawmakers must make it a priority to promote job training programs to prepare individuals for careers in home building and pursue immigration policies that complement ongoing vocational training efforts and help fill labor gaps while protecting the nation’s borders.
To ensure sufficient mortgage liquidity for homeownership and rental housing opportunities, Congress needs to enact meaningful housing finance reform that maintains an appropriate level of federal support. This is especially important for ensuring the availability of the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage that has enabled millions of American families to build wealth and financial security through homeownership.
Congress can help builders expand the production of sorely needed affordable rental housing units by passing the Affordable Housing Credit Improvement Act, bipartisan legislation recently introduced in the House and Senate that would improve and enhance the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit. Specifically, making permanent the 4 percent credit rate for acquisition and bond-financed projects would further promote the construction of affordable housing by providing more certainty and flexibility in financing these properties.
A critical but often overlooked factor that is hurting housing affordability is the ongoing trade war on lumber, steel, aluminum and other imported materials and equipment that is needlessly driving up housing costs. The administration needs to negotiate a new Softwood Lumber Agreement with Canada and to resolve the trade dispute with China to bring down the artificial increase in building material prices that are putting upward pressure on home prices and rental units.
The American dream begins at home. Local and national officials must make it a priority to explore and implement creative strategies that will help reach the goal of “a decent home and a suitable environment for every American family,” that was set by Congress in 1949.
National Association of Realtor’s chief economist Lawrence Yun’s remarks came during a talk at the Realtors Conference & Expo in Boston last week, where he added that in his opinion another recession seems unlikely in the short term due to the country’s sound economic fundamentals.
Yun also forecast around six million new and existing home sales by the end of this year, and slightly more in the next couple of years. The economist also believes home prices will continue to grow at a modest rate, around 4.7 percent in 2018, 3.1 percent in 2019 and 2.7 percent in 2020.
Yun forecast around six million new and existing home sales by the end of this year
New homes are being added to the market at a rate of around 1.2 million per year, but that’s below the historical average
Yun said there’s little chance of a recession happening as inflation remains under control, and so any interest rate increases by the Federal Reserve will likely be moderate.
However, Yun said these positive trends would only occur if homebuilders are able to keep up with demand by adding new inventory to the market. New homes are being added to the market at a rate of around 1.2 million per year, but that’s below the historical average and well off the 1.9 million homes that were built in 2004.
There are no signs of a housing bubble at least, Yun added. He said that even though home prices have been outpacing income for several years now, the overall economy in the U.S. is still fundamentally sound, that mortgage quality is high, and that due to the persisting inventory shortages in many markets, there is no danger of the overbuilding that preceded the Great Recession.
Some risks do exist though. Yun said the threat of a full-scale trade war between the U.S. would hamper economic growth, and lead to higher interest rates for long-term debt instruments. If that happened, it’s likely a recession would occur, Yun said.
One piece of good news is that Realtors themselves can help do their bit by reminding their clients that the economy is still healthy and that all signs point towards positive home price increases. Yun said there’s little chance of a recession happening as inflation remains under control, and so any interest rate increases by the Federal Reserve will likely be moderate.
In other words, it’s a good time to buy a home, Yun said.
“All indications are prices will keep moving higher, and buyers who wait risk missing out on wealth gains,” he said.
Rapid urbanization is pushing up demand for housing in Sub-Saharan Africa.
African cities become the new home to over 40,000 people every day, many of whom find themselves without a roof over their heads. With that in mind, IFC has committed to do more to develop the property sector, both to provide new and affordable housing and to encourage an industry that requires significant building materials and has the potential to be a major employer.
In May, IFC and Chinese multinational construction and engineering company, CITIC Construction launched a $300 million investment platform, CITICC (Africa) Holding Limited, to develop affordable housing in multiple African countries.
The platform will partner with local housing developers and provide long-term capital to develop 30,000 homes over next five years. IFC estimates that each housing unit will create five full-time jobs – resulting in nearly 150,000 new jobs on the continent.
Kenya and Nigeria are high on the priority list for the new effort. Kenya’s housing shortage is estimated at 2 million units, while Nigeria is in want of 17 million units. The soaring demand is being met by scant new supply. Africa’s housing market has few local developers with the technical and financial strength to construct large-scale projects.
The IFC-CITIC Construction platform will work with local housing companies to develop affordable housing projects across Sub-Saharan Africa, each ranging in size from 2,000 to 8,000 units. CITIC Construction has a proven track record in constructing and delivering large scale housing projects. The platform will start by developing homes in Kenya, Rwanda and Nigeria, expanding to other countries as operations ramp up.
“In Angola, through planning, financing, construction and post-construction operation, CITIC Construction has successfully completed the 200,000 units housing program, new city of Kilamba Kiaxi, with relative infrastructure and utilities in four years. CITIC Construction has also founded the CITIC BN Vocational School in Angola which helps youth acquire the skills they need to become professionals”, said Hong Bo, Assistant President of CITIC Group and Chairwoman of CITIC Construction, “CITIC Construction will take advantage of our engineering experience and delivery capability to develop more affordable houses for Africa through the platform with IFC.”
“As Sub-Saharan Africa become more urbanized, the private sector can help governments meet the critical need for housing”, said Oumar Seydi, IFC Director for Eastern and Southern Africa. “The platform will help transform Africa’s housing markets by providing high quality, affordable homes, creating jobs, and demonstrating the viability of the sector to local developers.
IFC will work with financial institutions to support mortgages and housing finance that will allow people to purchase the units.”
The new housing units will be constructed in accordance to IFC’s green building standards, delivering homes that are environmentally friendly and sustainable.
The World Bank Group estimates that by 2030, three billion people, or 40 percent of the world’s population will need new housing units. To date, IFC has invested more than $3 billion in housing finance in over 46 countries world-wide. IFC focuses on regions where large portions of the population live in sub-standard housing and have limited access to credit to build, expand, or renovate their homes.
When the nonprofit Michigan League for Public Policy announced that Detroit’s lack of safe, affordable housing could become much worse in the next few years, and those most in need are likely to suffer the worst, I nodded my head.
I know too well that housing is one of the biggest barriers to social, emotional and economic health and well-being for Michigan families and the dearth of affordable, safe housing in Detroit and throughout Michigan.
Affordable housing is the top health and human service need in the country and in our state. In articles published online and in national media outlets, this urgent demand for good housing options comes up again and again as one of our most important focuses today.
It’s a concern we’ve had as we serve people struggling to stay afloat and keep their families together — which has been a huge motivator for us to collaborate toward building more affordable housing communities through tax credit-financed projects around the state.
For more than three decades, Samaritas has grown its affordable housing service to campuses, serving seniors, families and persons with disabilities. In July, we begin renovating the St. Joseph Seminary building in Grand Rapids. This site will include 52 apartments for seniors, seven of which will be seniors with disabilities.
We are on track to submit several applications every year to MSHDA for tax credit financing approval to add sites throughout Michigan.
Congress recognizes the severe need for affordable housing and so has established tax credit financing to meet this need. While securing these funds in an extremely competitive market for affordable housing development can be daunting, we soldier on with the hope that we can continue to be successful to expand our affordable housing services throughout the state and provide safe residences for so many Michigan residents.
The need is increasing at a fast pace. While our legislators in Washington and in Lansing recognize and support this need, are we doing all we can do to empower every American with the tools they need to succeed? To survive? To thrive?
The best thing we can do when creating affordable housing is take the whole picture into account. Is the proposed site close to public transportation? Within a short distance of groceries? Medical and dental care? Urgent care? Community activities?
Location is everything. An affordable housing community has no value if it’s far from the services and programs every day folks need to thrive.
Better yet, affordable housing campuses that offer a service coordinator on staff better meet the needs of residents. Maintenance, security and programming are essential elements that guarantee safety and promote community.
Doctor visits, field trips, parties, planned activities on and off site, guest speakers and classes keep people connected, involved and aware. Seniors in affordable communities like to volunteer at faith centers and schools; when transportation is easily accessible or provided by the community, they fulfill the soul-deep need to be of value, to give to others, and their lives and health benefit as do the people with whom they connect.
As the need for affordable, safe housing continues to grow, we need to meet those needs — and exceed them. If we are only as strong as our weakest link, then we must all care deeply about the welfare and well-being of every member of society — and do what we can to bring full health, satisfaction and value to every person among us. That’s the promise that accompanies affordable housing if we are to turn things around.
Hip-hop icon Queen Latifah is putting on her developer hat and returning to her hometown of Newark to build a new affordable housing complex.
According to published reports, the $14 million project is expected to break ground this summer along Springfield Avenue and South 17th, NJ.com reports. The outlet notes that the property will “include 23 family townhomes, 16 additional smaller units, a fitness center and a commercial space that will be rented to non-profits.”
Latifah is a co-president of BlueSugar Corporation, which has partnered with GonSosa Development on the project.
The affordable housing apartments will be priced according to a person’s income, while the rents for the market rate units will start around $1,800 a month.
“BlueSugar and GS Developers share the belief that decent, affordable housing should be available to everyone regardless of their financial situation,” said Cristina Pinzon, a spokesperson for the developers. “The principals in both companies have strong connections to Newark and the surrounding area and have seen this need firsthand.
They understand know how difficult it is to make ends meet for many residents and want to be part of the solution. They remain dedicated to making life better in communities like Newark.”
A rendering of the 76-unit residential town homes coming to Springfield Avenue and South 17th Street in Newark. Queen Latifah, a Newark native, is one of the investors. (Courtesy: BlueSugar Corporation and GonSosa Development) (BlueSugar Corporation and GonSosa Development)
Last year, NBA star and Newark native Shaquille O’Neill returned to his home state to invest in a high-rise downtown.
“We have been having ongoing conversations with a few other celebrities, so stay tuned,” said Aisha Glover, President and CEO of the Newark Alliance, which is comprised of local corporations and institutions who are invested in Newark. “We’re really trying to make sure that everything we do from A-to-Z is inclusive and people can afford to live here.”
Two affordable housing projects in Millbrae and East Palo Alto will receive over $38 million from the state, county officials announced on Friday.
The grant will add 208 units for veterans and very low and extremely low-income individuals in San Mateo County.
The money was awarded for Bayshore Affordable Apartments in Millbrae and Light Tree Apartments in East Palo Alto. The funding came from the state Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities program.
“This award represents the power of building strategic collaboration between the Department of Housing, the developers, the cities and our transportation partners,” Ken Cole, director of San Mateo County’s Department of Housing, said in a statement.
The application for the award takes three to six months to prepare, but the county and its partners prepared it in one month.
Bayshore Affordable Apartments will be a part of the Gateway at Millbrae Station, a residential and retail development to be located near the Millbrae BART/Caltrain station.
Light Tree Apartments, developed by Eden Housing and EPA CAN DO, at 1805 E. Bayshore Road, will provide 128 new and replacement units for families and substantially renovate and preserve the affordability of 57 units to remain at the property.
“The grant is an opportunity for us to take 91 families off our waiting list and into a high-quality home,” Linda Mandolini, president of Eden Housing, said in a statement.
John Redfern said he gets two to three letters a week from investors asking to buy his property.
He owns a house on Battery Drive, less than two miles east of downtown Raleigh.
“I haven’t found a sufficient amount of money that they can offer me, since this is my family home, for me to sell,” Redfern said. “So my reaction, as long as I live, would be no.”
The 80-year-old moved into the home as a child in 1938 when he said only African-Americans lived in the neighborhood.
“There were not many houses here in this neighborhood,” Redfern said. “It was a dirt road.”
So much has changed since then. Right down the street, there are renovated houses and others getting redone. The prices are skyrocketing. And some residents in historically black neighborhoods are getting pushed out.
“There probably are not many black residents left on this street because of the price,” Redfern said.
Gentrification is the focus of a meeting hosted by the City of Raleigh on Thursday.
Kristen Jeffers, of “The Black Urbanist” multimedia platform, is one of the speakers.
“We have people who really want to live in the center city and in that case, there are a lot of older neighborhoods that were deemed undesirable, neighborhoods — historically black neighborhoods, a lot of them that tend to be less expensive,” Jeffers said. “They were valued less, so now you have a lot of people who want central city property asking for those properties.”
Jeffers said it is important that Raleigh is ready for this shift.
“Making sure we’re active about affordable housing, active about proper transit, working with community members to sort of merge old and new and not bring in the new at the expense of the old,” Jeffers said.
Raleigh has committed to building 5,700 affordable housing units in southeast Raleigh during the next 10 years.
A city spokeswoman said the numbers reached 1,814 for this commitment, as of May. The work started in 2016.
Redfern moved out of the house.
But he won’t sell, using it as the office for his photography business.
For Redfern, the home represents the progress of his family, who sacrificed so much to own a plot of land.
“It represents Black America to me,” Redfern said. “It represents a time when I was young.”
The government has signed a memorandum of understanding with 26 counties to build affordable housing for Kenyans.
Each of the counties will construct at least 2,000 housing units
“We identified an additional 121 potential land sites with over 12,000 acres across 38 counties,” Transport, Infrastructure, Housing and Urban Development CS James Macharia said.
The remarks were in a speech read on the CS’s behalf by Housing PS Charles Hinga during a two-day summit on affordable housing.
The forum in Nairobi brought together a global network of investors, developers, government officials, financial consultants, architects and technology providers.
Its objective was to identify effective and innovative affordable housing solutions for Africa and in particular Kenya.
The housing deficit in Kenya stands at 2 million and continues to grow at a rate of about 200,000 units a year, according to UN-Habitat.
UN-Habitat said there is a proliferation of informal settlements in urban areas with 61 per cent of the urban population living in slums in overcrowded homes typically with only one room and no adequate ventilation.
Macharia said Kenya is rapidly urbanising. However, the growth of urban population has not been matched by a similar pace in the development of urban housing and infrastructure.
“This has resulted into a backlog of about 2 million houses,” he said.
Kenya’s estimated annual urban housing demand is 250,000 units against an annual urban supply of 50,000, which mostly targets the high-end market.
Macharia said only two per cent of formally constructed houses target the lower income segment.
The Central Bank of Kenya says there were only 26,187 mortgages with an average loan size of Sh10.9 million in 2017.
“Arising from these challenges, slums and informal settlements have proliferated in our urban and peri-urban areas across Kenya,” Macharia said.
The government under its Big Four agenda wants to construct 500,000 affordable housing units by 2022.
Under the programme, the government is working on end-user financing and will be offering various purchase options including outright cash sales, tenant purchase (rent-to-own), and subsidised mortgages.
The government anticipates the housing developments will be attractive to members of co-operatives and employer-employee facilitated housing; among others.
County governments, the private sector, housing cooperatives, landowners and financiers among others have been roped in.
Components of the programme include mobilisation of affordable housing finance; land identification and registration; provision of supporting infrastructure; tapping of innovative construction technologies and materials.
Macharia cited the development of guidelines framework and identification of public land for the projects in Nairobi which include Park Road, Starehe, Shauri Moyo and Mavoko as milestones.
Slum upgrading and improvement of informal settlements which include Kibera, Marigu-ini and Kiambiu have also been identified, he said.
“Our first project to develop 1,370 units at Park Road is ongoing and the first phase comprising 288 units will be completed in November this year,”he said.
Macharia said MoUs have been signed with three jua kali cohorts that will provide doors, hinges and balustrades for the Project as a way of growing the informal sector.
The CS said the affordable housing project has received overwhelming support from developers, consortiums, financiers, landowners and innovative technology providers.
The government has proposed Housing Fund regulations, which will enhance contributions towards the fund and act as a vehicle to mobilise resources for the project.
Macharia said various incentives and legislation have been established to facilitate both developers and future homeowners.
These include the stamp duty for first time home buyers having been zero-rated vide the Finance Act of 2018, thereby, reducing the burden of homebuyers.
“Other incentives include lower income tax rates for developers who are delivering 100 units or more, lower taxation on housing bonds at 10 percent provided interest shall not exceed Sh 300,000, and consideration for approvals such as the. NEMA and NCA levies which have been scrapped,”he said.
He said the project will double the contributions to GDP by the construction sector from 7 to 14 percent by 2022.
“We also anticipate the creation of some 350,000 direct and indirect jobs. For every USD 1 invested into the Program, we estimate that between USD 1.5 and USD 3 will be injected into the economy,” he said.
As Democratic candidates square off in the first 2020 debates, you might hear about an issue that has long been absent from presidential campaigns: affordable housing. With the cost of living skyrocketing nationwide, Democratic contenders have started to take housing seriously as a campaign issue for the first time in decades, releasing extensive proposals to address inequities for both homeowners and renters.
“It feels like it’s about time,” says Diane Yentel, president of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition. “We’ve had Congress shortchanging affordable housing for decades. To now have candidates using their platforms to talk about the crisis itself—it’s remarkable.”
So far, candidates Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Julián Castro—all of whom will be participating in tonight’s debate—have released extensive proposals aimed at dramatically increasing the supply of affordable housing, while also beefing up protections for renters and homeowners. Others, like Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand, who will be appearing tomorrow, have either signed onto these plans or proposed more limited solutions.
While the plans differ widely in strategy and scope, one objective is common to almost all of them: a massive funding increase for the Housing Trust Fund, the most targeted low-income housing program at the federal level.
Created in 2008, the trust fund provides states with badly needed resources to build and maintain housing, mostly for extremely low-income families. Yet, the program’s funding has never kept up with demand: Today, there remains a shortage of more than seven million homes for families in poverty.
To fill that gap, Warren, Booker, Castro, and Gillibrand all propose financing the trust fund by an additional $40 to $45 billion per year. Such an influx would have a significant impact on low-income communities nationwide. “Expanding it like this could mean the creation of three million apartments,” says Yentel.
But the proposals don’t stop there. Along with targeted new investments in low-income housing, the plans use a variety of strategies and tools to empower renters facing eviction, offer assistance to first-time homebuyers, encourage cities to reform zoning rules preventing new construction, and narrow the racial wealth gap, among other goals.
Such a broad, holistic approach speaks to the sheer scale of the crisis—but also to whom it’s now impacting. While the shortage of low-income housing can be traced back to the late 1970s, the housing crisis has grown to become a problem for middle-class Americans as well.
Today, home prices are rising at twice the rate of wages, while two-thirds of renters already say they can’t afford to buy. All told, some 38 million renters—nearly the entire population of California—are cost-burdened, meaning they spend at least 30 percent of their paycheck on rent. “The crisis is worsening, and its effects are starting to be felt by the middle class,” says Yentel. “When that happens, policymakers start really paying attention.”
At the same time, Democrats are starting to realize that housing policy could also be good politics. “From a political standpoint, this hits on a number of key Democratic constituencies,” says Jenny Schuetz, a fellow at Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program.“Young people, renters in large cities, people of color—all heavily blue groups.”
But not all housing plans are created equal, and while Democratic candidates approach the crisis with largely similar goals in mind, they differ, at times significantly, in how to get there.
One such flashpoint is zoning reform, which in many places is critical to allow for new housing construction. Because zoning is by and large a local issue, plans like Castro’s and Warren’s aim to use federal funds as either a carrot or a stick to encourage changes. Under Castro’s proposal, such reforms would be a requirement for cities to receive Community Development Block Grants, which help fund things like affordable housing construction and anti-poverty initiatives.
Warren, by contrast, aims to entice local reforms through a competitive block-grant program. Unlike Castro, Warren wants to use new federal funds as a carrot for local governments, rather than existing money that municipalities already depend on.
Yet with both strategies, one potential danger is that they may sidestep some of the most exclusionary zoning in wealthier neighborhoods and suburbs. Because these areas are far less dependent on federal block grants than lower-income communities, they may not be enticed by new or existing funding. As a result, wealthier suburbs could be left unchanged, including some areas most in need of zoning reform, while cities with large low-income populations that fail to reform could have their federal block grants cut.
By contrast, Cory Booker’s plan ties upzoning to both block grants and Department of Transportation funding, an approach experts say could go much further. “Attaching upzoning requirements to existing DOT funds would be a big improvement, and it may start to impact smaller residential suburbs,” says Schuetz. “But we’ve never tried doing this, so whether this would be a big incentive is hard to say.”
The thorny debate over upzoning reflects how issues like this can belie the traditional left-right divide, even in an age of hyper-partisanship. Just last month, a California plan to upzone areas near commercial and transit corridors went up in flames for the second time in two years. While detractors on the right called it a big-government power grab, some progressives worried that without new funding for affordable housing, the reforms would simply fuel high-end development and gentrification.
Until recently, this could also have been said about Booker’s housing plan, which did not include new funding for the Housing Trust Fund until earlier this month.
Another issue these plans tackle is how to deal with the legacy of racial discrimination in federal housing policy, a legacy that remains deeply embedded in the fabric of urban and suburban America. Under Warren’s plan, homebuyers in historically redlined communities would be eligible for down-payment assistance through a new pot of money distributed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Although not explicitly geared toward African-American families, experts say they are the primary targets of the policy. The provision applies only to areas once marked “D” or “hazardous” on federal maps due to their racial make-up, and which were systematically denied federal mortgage loans based on that classification beginning in the 1930s. Recipients must also be first-time home buyers, must have lived in the redlined area for at least four years, and must be below 120 percent of the area’s median income.
But while Warren’s approach has earned comparisons with the ongoing debate over reparations, experts warn the policy’s language may not do enough to target the real victims of historic housing discrimination. In fact, the policy may even contribute to their displacement, since white gentrifiers may also receive assistance in some cases. “There are some concerns about targeting geography rather than race,” says Schuetz. “So you could have white families who are eligible.”
By contrast, Booker wants to approach historic inequities in homeownership mostly by targeting the racial wealth gap. His solution is the American Opportunity Accounts Program, or “baby bonds.” Under this plan, every child born in the U.S. would be given $1,000 at birth to be put into a low-risk savings account managed by the Treasury. Each year, the federal government would deposit additional funds on a sliding scale based on family income, with households in poverty receiving as much as $2,000 per year. At 18, the child would have access to the account, but only for specific purchases, like buying a home or attending college.
Although Booker’s plan is race-neutral in its language as well, the sliding income scale helps ensure that nonwhite children, and blacks in particular, would benefit most. On average, black children would receive $29,000 from the program by their 18thbirthday, while white kids would receive closer to $15,000.
Warren’s and Booker’s call for homebuyer assistance could go a long way toward combating both the racial wealth gap and the gap in homeownership rates between blacks and whites—but it’s not a magic bullet, either. While down payment assistance can be a decisive contributor to homeownership rates—particularly among nonwhite, first-time homebuyers—a number of other factors contribute to these disparities. According to an Urban Institute study last year, the children of stable homeowners are far more likely to own their own homes in adulthood. Critically, black families are not only much less likely to own a home, they’re also much more likely to transition between homeownership and renting over time.
There’s also the question of whether first-time homebuyers assistance simply pulls purchases forward without generating new ones. A homebuyer tax credit included in the 2009 stimulus package had this effect, according to some economic studies, making it an inefficient use of federal dollars.
Policy details aside, one significant change in how Democratic candidates are now approaching housing issues is in their rhetoric. In sharp contrast to recent election cycles, a number of prominent Democrats—including Warren, Booker, Castro, and Harris—have recognized housing as a human right that should be guaranteed. Such language harkens back to a time when the federal government aimed—at least in writing—to house every American.
Yet only Julian Castro’s plan explicitly codifies that right as an entitlement. His proposal calls for dramatically restructuring the Housing Choice Voucher Program (“Section 8”) by guaranteeing assistance to all households below 50 percent of an area’s median income. The proposal also bans discrimination based on a tenant’s income source—a perennial problem for tenants trying to find landlords willing to accept a Section 8 voucher.
Such guarantees have the potential to radically reshape low-income housing nationwide. Currently, Section 8 vouchers serve 2.2 million households, but the number of eligible recipients is around four times higher.
That disparity means applicants must spend years on waitlists—and that’s if they’re lucky enough to get a spot. In Los Angeles alone, more than 188,000 people applied for just 20,000 waitlist slots last year. And for the lucky few who actually get a voucher, landlord discrimination means just six out of ten Section 8 recipients in LA will actually find housing within the allotted six-month window.
Enshrining low-income housing as a basic right would mark a significant change in social policy, but also in philosophy. “There are other countries that have established a right to housing. The UN has recognized housing as a human right. But the U.S. hasn’t said anything close to that,” says Schuetz.
If all this sounds less than possible in the current political climate, housing advocates are encouraged by how ambitious the debate has already become. “One thing that’s really refreshing about seeing such comprehensive solutions: The scale of investments matches the scale of the crisis itself,” says Yentel. “When the starting line gets moved this far, when we actually compromise, it increases the possibility of us ending with a higher amount.”
Some of these proposals may also have bipartisan support—at least when it comes to upzoning. On June 26, the Trump administration released its own housing plan, focused mostly on zoning reform. Much like California’s AB 50, however, our landlord-in-chief does not call for new funding for affordable housing or badly needed protections for renters. Rather, by sidestepping the deep roots of the housing crisis, there’s a good chance the plan will simply fuel high-end development and gentrification.
At the very least, however, the White House plan shows that housing is an issue that can no longer be ignored—by the right or the left. “In these first early months, we’ve seen more attention paid to housing than in entire previous campaigns,” says Yentel. “I can’t wait for the debates.”
Seattle’s housing market has been red-hot for almost a decade. Across the Northwest’s largest metropolitan area, real estate is not only expensive, upward of a million dollars for homes in some of the nicest enclaves, but often sells in a matter of days.
A complex of forces — the growth of Amazon, the technological might of Microsoft, the jobs those companies bring and a dearth of available real estate — has made Seattle one of the costliest housing markets in the country.
Only San Francisco and Las Vegas have outpaced Seattle in rising home prices in the last six years, according to the Case-Shiller Home Price Indices report. It’s not just home-buying that has been expensive, but also renting.
The rental market may have cooled some in the last year, but that’s after years of increases that outpaced inflation. From 2015 to 2016 alone, Seattle saw an almost 10 percent jump in rental prices. The tight market is part of the reason for the city’s surging homeless population.
Seattle is a small city, wedged between Puget Sound and Lake Washington on 83 square miles of land. It’s about the same size as Madison, Wis., but with about three times as many residents — more than 700,000 by the most recent count. In just the past decade, more than 115,000 people have moved to the area.
All that growth is taking place in a city that, like those all over the West, has long relied on single-family homes to meet its housing needs. More than two-thirds of the city is zoned single-family. The result is that Seattle simply is not dense enough to cope with the surging demand. When a multi-unit project is built, it’s usually a luxury apartment building. “While there is more supply,” says Andrew Lofton, executive director of the Seattle Housing Authority, “it’s not coming online for moderate income earners.”
In April, Seattle followed the lead of Minneapolis in enacting a zoning reform law. But where Minneapolis approved sweeping changes that eliminated exclusive single-family zoning in many of its neighborhoods, Seattle scaled back its own ambitions. City planners originally wanted to up-zone 50 neighborhoods.
That idea was opposed by a coalition of 26 neighborhood groups, and the fight was fierce. One public comment submitted to the city read: “The density Bolsheviks are coming to town, and they’re gonna burn your single-family house to the ground.”
Seattle settled on what locals call “The Grand Bargain.” Twenty-seven neighborhoods will be up-zoned, allowing for greater density and looser height restrictions, but only if developers agree to either build affordable housing on the new site or pay into the city’s affordable housing fund. Seattle estimates the plan will bring an additional 4,000 affordable units to the city.
That Seattle decided to use a scalpel to carve out areas for up-zoning instead of taking a hammer to its zoning ordinance, as Minneapolis did, underscores just how intensely residents resist changes. Minneapolis made history in December when it became the first city in the nation to up-zone its entire jurisdiction.
It was a highly divisive move. More than 10,000 comments, many in opposition, were lodged during the public comment period. A lawsuit was filed claiming that increased density would be likely to cause “the pollution, impairment, or destruction of the air, water, land or other natural resources.”
The up-zoning grew out of a long-range vision document called Minneapolis 2040. Its proponents have accused detractors of using environmental arguments — which have considerable traction in the progressive city — to maintain residential segregation. Those allegations, in turn, were challenged in the public comments. “Anyone who doesn’t get on board with their plan,” an opponent wrote, “for any reason at all, is racist.”
The housing crisis has forced cities from Minneapolis to Seattle, Philadelphia to Austin, and the entire state of California to walk headlong into a portion of urban policy that has long been a political minefield.
It’s hard to avoid. According to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard, more than half the nation’s renters are cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent. The most obvious answer for many cities is to increase the housing supply by going after single-family zoning, which has been sacrosanct in much of the nation for more than 100 years.
A growing number of cities are looking to up-zone, to allow developers to build higher and denser apartment buildings in what were single-family neighborhoods. More supply, the argument goes, will drive down rents. But up-zoning impacts have been hotly debated.
In New York, up-zoning did increase supply, but it did not drive down prices. “It can be a double-edged sword,” says Diana Lind, author of the forthcoming book, Brave New Home: The Smarter, Cheaper, Happier Future of Housing. “It doesn’t always create more affordability, but it does fix the capacity issue.”
In Chicago, up-zoning hasn’t delivered very well on its promise to draw investment. Yonah Freemark, an urban scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has studied the impact of up-zoning adopted by Chicago in 2013 and expanded in 2015.
Increasing density and lifting height restrictions weren’t enough to lure developers to the lowest-income neighborhoods. “Zoning is all based on a market reaction. If developers don’t want to respond to your zoning change, then nothing will get built,” Freemark says. “We have seen low-income and underdeveloped communities rezone, and investors still don’t want to build in those communities.” Up-zoning alone, according to Freemark, won’t unleash the market to provide enough housing to bring down costs. Cities will have to do much more.
Given the limited success zoning changes have demonstrated in promoting affordable housing, and given the political backlash they spark, why are cities looking at them as a solution? The answer lies in how zoning has historically shaped our cities, and how it continues to do so.
Without some sort of zoning changes, even critics agree cities won’t be able to meet their housing demands. “All these cities,” Lind says, “have outdated zoning laws that prohibit people from living the way they want to live.” Still, the path forward on zoning will be a tricky one to navigate.
In 1916, the New York City Board of Estimate released the first zoning map in the nation’s history. Neighborhoods were labeled either “residential,” “commercial” or “industrial.” The zoning ordinance also set standards for the latest innovation in construction — the skyscraper. Setback requirements made sure the skyscrapers sprouting up like weeds in Manhattan didn’t completely blot out the sun.
Other cities followed, but intentions weren’t always pure. In 1917, the Supreme Court banned cities from drafting ordinances that mandated where black families could and couldn’t live. Cities got around this by drafting zoning codes that separated apartment buildings (the ones with most of the minority and poorer tenants) from single-family homes. This was especially true in the industrial cities where black families from the South and immigrants from eastern and southern Europe were arriving in droves.
Single-family zoning was the first of many obstacles erected to segregate communities. Redlining, which cut off needed investment in the form of federally backed mortgages, and covenant restrictions, which kept minorities and some ethnic white residents corralled in poorer neighborhoods, helped institutionalize the racial wealth gap.
Those practices made it harder for poor black families to move to the more desirable white communities. Currently, 40 percent of black households own their homes, compared with 70 percent of white households.
Restrictive covenants were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1948, and the 1968 Fair Housing Act ended redlining for good. Zoning regulations were the last major legal barrier to integrating neighborhoods. Homeowners have used them for decades to block the construction of apartment complexes and protect their single-family neighborhoods.
In this century, as affluent white professionals moved back to the urban core, rising rents came with them. This was also partly a result of zoning codes, and in no place was it more apparent than in New York City. Michael Bloomberg became mayor of New York in 2002, and in less than six years his zoning reform campaign rezoned 6,000 city blocks.
The process was uneven. Low-income neighborhoods such as Long Island City in Queens and black and Latino neighborhoods in Brooklyn were up-zoned to allow greater density. Developers didn’t drive this process — policy did. The intention, Lind says, “was to incentivize demand.” Meanwhile, affluent neighborhoods like Park Slope in Brooklyn and Richmond Hill in Queens were down-zoned.
The net result: High-rise luxury apartments went up in Long Island City; market-rate condominiums replaced older single-family homes in overwhelmingly black Bedford-Stuyvesant; and affluent Park Slope and Richmond Hill remained virtually untouched.
In those first six Bloomberg years, 180,000 new apartment units were built in New York City, but few of them were in the affordable category. Minorities and the poor felt the squeeze. “When you are building 40-story buildings, and each unit sells for $10 million and you have a private swimming pool, you weren’t doing up-zoning to make housing more affordable,” says Randy Shaw, executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which advocates for affordable housing. “The way up-zoning has been done in New York has promoted gentrification.”
The racialized history of zoning practices explains why Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey took up the issue. Frey is a Virginia native and a former professional distance runner who fell in love with the city when he competed in a marathon there in 2006. He moved to Minneapolis the day after graduating law school. In 2017, he ran for mayor on a platform of racial equity. “Minneapolis has a long history of redlining and intentional segregation,” Frey says.
“We literally had maps that described North Minneapolis being for blacks and Jews.” The divide still exists for black residents and newly arrived African immigrants. Most of them live on the city’s North Side, while the southwest section of town is largely white.
Now, Minneapolis has eliminated exclusive single-family zoning everywhere in the city. In addition, developers won’t be allowed to build the exclusive towers in the park that have become the symbol of New York’s up-zoning and gentrification. High-rises will be permitted near transit hubs, but triplexes (three-unit buildings) will be allowed all across the city. Developers must make 10 percent of the units in their buildings affordable to those earning less than 60 percent of the average median income in Minneapolis, or $36,473.
The ordinance adds in a sweetener for developers who go beyond the requirement. If they make 20 percent of the units affordable, the city will add in cash assistance for the project. Minneapolis, says Frey, “wanted to make sure the precision of our solution matched the precision of the segregation.”
Philadelphia has been through these things before, and is still fighting over them. In 2011, toward the end of Michael Nutter’s first term as mayor, the city embarked on an ambitious plan to revamp its zoning. Like many cities, Philadelphia hadn’t updated its zoning maps since the 1950s.
Nutter proposed remapping 12,000 acres of land, and clustering high-density development around transit hubs. “Over the years, the areas around elevated train stations became blighted,” says Marty Gregorski of Philadelphia’s Planning Commission, “because it was hard to develop those areas for single-family homes.”
Opponents pushed back. They claimed Philadelphia wasn’t New York or Seattle, cities bursting at the seams with recent arrivals. And they were right. The city’s current population of 1.5 million is 25 percent lower than at its peak in 1950. Since the plan was unveiled, only 40 percent of the land has been rezoned.
Why not more? Blame the process. Rezoning is essentially a prerogative of the city council, which in turn defers to the individual council member from the district in which development is to take place. The effect has been to create zoning fiefdoms across Philadelphia. In many of the places where rezoning has taken place, luxury condominiums have sprouted up. Around Temple University in North Philadelphia, it’s not condominiums being built, but new student housing, helped by rezoning. The locals call it “dormification.”
Much like the homeowners of the past, battling to preserve their neighborhoods, City Council President Darrell Clarke has been a sharp critic of Philadelphia’s rezoning efforts. “There are significant concerns about gentrification, significant concerns with density,” Clarke told WHYY public radio in Philadelphia.
“We aren’t sure that [the rezoning of 2011] accomplished its intended goal. The simple reality is that we need to revisit it.” In May, Clarke pushed two bills in the Philadelphia City Council to slow development. The first bill calls for less density and more parking. The second bill gives even more control over zoning to the council.
In most of America, zoning and density arguments continue to be fought in city council meetings and zoning board hearings. The one dramatic exception is California, where the statewide housing crisis is perhaps the most acute in the nation. According to the state’s own estimates, California needs 1.8 million new housing units by 2025 to meet the demands of its growing population.
The dearth of affordable housing has increased rents enormously in traditional middle-class neighborhoods. On the Westside of Los Angeles, for example, it has pushed middle-income renters east in search of cheaper housing. That in turn has displaced lower-income Latinos in neighborhoods like Boyle Heights and Highland Park.
The issue has been forced to statewide attention by State Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco. In spring 2018, Wiener proposed S.B. 827, a bill to allow the state to override local zoning ordinances and mandate taller housing units near transit stops. S.B. 827 faced a strong backlash and died in committee.
This year, Wiener tried again with a new bill, S.B. 50. This effort has also drawn criticism. The Los Angeles City Council unanimously passed a resolution opposing it. Council members said the bill, which allows developers to pony up in-lieu payments when they don’t reach affordable housing goals for a new development, wouldn’t be effective in addressing affordability.
But they also echoed sentiments that have deep roots in California’s housing culture. Councilman Paul Koretz complained that S.B. 50 would add unwanted crowding to low-slung residential neighborhoods. “In Los Angeles, we already have densified,” Koretz insisted to a real estate publication. S.B. 50 was sidetracked in committee in May, and has effectively been taken off the legislative agenda until 2020.
The opponents of S.B. 50 use the term “Manhattanization” to describe the kind of places they do not want their neighborhoods to become. They mention it almost anytime a high-rise project is proposed. But the critiques of S.B. 50 go beyond whether it will transform Los Angeles into a West Coast version of New York City.
They are about local control. Randy Shaw of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic says Los Angeles could do something about its housing crisis at the local level, even in the absence of state action, and that it should, because, as he puts it, “Los Angeles can’t be a one-story town.”
San Francisco is making its own efforts to deal with the problem locally. It launched a pilot program in 2018 that allows developers to construct denser and, in some cases, taller structures in exchange for affordable housing built on-site. If developers can build more dwellings in a building, which can be accomplished by loosening height restrictions, they can offset the revenue that they miss out on by constructing affordable units. With a plan like that, Shaw says, “you aren’t gentrifying a neighborhood, you are bringing in lower-income people. That’s the opposite of gentrification.”
When Seattle settled on its “Grand Bargain” for up-zoning, it may have fallen into the same trap New York City did more than a decade ago. Only 6 percent of the exclusive single-family zones in the city will be up-zoned. Much of the up-zoning will occur along Seattle’s Link light rail line and in what have long been low-income neighborhoods. Like New York before it, Seattle’s decision could unleash the brute force of the market on its low-income residents, while sparing many of its more affluent residents from the impacts of up-zoning.
Ground zero for this fight is Seattle’s Central Area neighborhood. Once a thriving black commercial and cultural hub that nourished the musical talents of Quincy Jones, Jimi Hendrix and Sir Mix-a-Lot, Central Area fell on hard times in the 1970s and ’80s. Crime rose and property values plummeted. In recent years, affluent white Seattle residents have moved in and begun to push black residents south to neighborhoods such as Rainier Beach. With up-zoning now passed by the city, that movement could intensify.
The Chateau Apartments is a low-slung 21-unit complex in the Central Area neighborhood. Most of the renters are poor; most use Section 8 vouchers to assist with their rent. In March, the residents of the Chateau received notice from the new owner that the building was being demolished. In its place will stand a 73-unit complex.
Seattle’s up-zoning requires the developer to set aside only five affordable units in the new building. It’s the kind of bargain up-zoning often offers. “The idea behind up-zoning is that you are supposed to get more units out of it,” Freemark says. “But the problem is you are going to displace people.”
Seattle’s Southside residents fear that what is happening at the Chateau will ripple across their part of town. The Rainier Beach Action Coalition partnered with several other community organizations to send a letter to the city in February, supporting a bill by Councilwoman Lisa Herbold to force developers who tear down affordable housing to replace it one-for-one in their new development. For the Chateau, that would mean 21 of the 73 units would be made affordable.
The plan was shelved, and replaced with an executive order calling for more help with evictions, and using nonprofits to locate displaced tenants in housing in their original neighborhood. The order, signed by Mayor Jenny Durkin, did not call for developers to replace low-rate rental units one-for-one or pay any additional money into the city’s housing fund.