The Missing Piece in The Affordable Housing Puzzle

The National Low Income Housing Coalition has posted The Gap: A Shortage of Affordable Homes. The report opens,

One of the biggest barriers to economic stability for families in the United States struggling to make ends meet is the severe shortage of affordable rental homes. The housing crisis is most severe for extremely low income renters, whose household incomes are at or below the poverty level or 30% of their area median income (see Box 1). Facing a shortage of more than 7.2 million affordable and available rental homes, extremely low income households account for nearly 73% of the nation’s severely cost-burdened renters, who spend more than half of their income on housing.

Even with these housing challenges, three out of four low income households in need of housing assistance are denied federal help with their housing due to chronic underfunding. Over half a million people were homeless on a single night in 2017 and many more millions of families without assistance face difficult choices between spending their limited incomes on rent or taking care of other necessities like food and medical care. Despite the serious lack of affordable housing, President Trump proposes further reducing federal housing assistance for the lowest income households through budget cuts, increased rents and work requirements.

Based on the American Community Survey (ACS), this report presents data on the affordable housing supply, housing cost burdens, and the demographics of severely impacted renters. The data clearly illustrate a chronic and severe shortage of affordable homes for the lowest income renters who would be harmed even more by budget cuts  and other restrictions in federal housing programs. (2, citations omitted)

The report’s key findings include,

  • The nation’s 11.2 million extremely low income renter households account for 25.7% of all renter households and 9.5% of all households in the United States.
  • The U.S. has a shortage of more than 7.2 million rental homes affordable and available to extremely low income renter households. Only 35 affordable and available rental homes exist for every 100 extremely low income renter households.
  • Seventy-one percent of extremely low income renter households are severely cost-burdened, spending more than half of their incomes on rent and utilities. They account for 72.7% of all severely cost-burdened renter households in the United States.
  • Thirty-two percent of very low income, 8% of low income, and 2.3% of middle income renter households are severely cost-burdened.
  • Of the eight million severely cost-burdened extremely low income renter households, 84% are seniors, persons with disabilities, or are in the labor force. Many others are enrolled in school or are single adults caring for a young child or a person with a disability. (2, citations omitted)

While the report does show how wrongheaded the Trump Administration’s proposed cuts to housing subsidies are, I was surprised that it did not address at all the impact of local zoning policies on housing affordability. There is no way that we are going to address the chronic shortage in affordable housing by subsidies alone.

The federal government will need to disincentivize local governments from implementing land use policies that keep affordable housing from being built in communities that have too little housing. These rules make single family homes too expensive by requiring large lots and make it too difficult to build multifamily housing. We cannot seriously tackle the affordability problem without addressing restrictive local land use policies.

The Gap in Affordable Homes

photo by Kenneth Frantz

The National Low Income Housing Coalition posted a report, The Gap: A Shortage of Affordable Homes. The report opens,

For the first time since the recession, U.S. household income increased significantly during 2015. Gains were seen even among the lowest income households, with the poverty rate declining from 14.8% to 13.5%. Millions of people, however, continue to struggle economically. Household income for the poorest 10% of households remains 6% lower today than in 2006, and more than 43 million Americans remain in poverty, many of whom struggle to afford their homes.

Each year, the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) measures the availability of rental housing affordable to extremely low income (ELI) households and other income groups. This year’s analysis is slightly different from previous years in that NLIHC adopted the federal government’s new statutory definition for ELI, which are households whose income is at or below either the poverty guideline or 30% of their area median income (AMI), whichever is higher. Based on 2015 American Community Survey (ACS) data, this report provides information on the affordable housing supply and housing cost burdens at the national, state, and metropolitan levels. This year’s analysis continues to show that ELI households face the largest shortage of affordable and available rental housing and have more severe housing cost burdens than any other group. (2, citations omitted)

The report’s key findings include:

• 11.4 million ELI renter households accounted for 26% of all U.S. renter households and nearly 10% of all households.

• The U.S. has a shortage of 7.4 million affordable and available rental homes for ELI renter households, resulting in 35 affordable and available units for every 100 ELI renter households.

• Seventy-one percent of ELI renter households are severely cost-burdened, spending more than half of their income on rent and utilities. These 8.1 million severely cost-burdened households account for 72.6% of all severely cost-burdened renter households in the U.S.

• Thirty-three percent of very low income (VLI) renter households; 8.2% of low income (LI) renter households, and 2.4% of middle income (MI) renter households are severely cost-burdened.

• ELI renter households face a shortage of affordable and available rental homes in every state. The shortage ranges from just 15 affordable and available homes for every 100 ELI renter households in Nevada to 61 in Alabama.

• The housing shortage for ELI renters ranges from 8,700 rental homes in Wyoming to 1.1 million in California. (2)

It is of course important to talk about this gap as an affordable housing issue, but as I have written before, it is as much an income problem as a housing problem. It’s not just that the rent is too damn high, but that the paycheck is just too damn low.

I don’t see anything on the political horizon that will address this fundamental set of problems, but we should at least identify it properly so we can work toward a solution when the time is right.

Gentrification in NYC


The NYU Furman Center released its annual State of New York City’s Housing and Neighborhoods (2015). This year’s report focused on gentrification:

“Gentrification” has become the accepted term to describe neighborhoods that start off predominantly occupied by households of relatively low socioeconomic status, and then experience an inflow of higher socioeconomic status households. The British sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term in 1964 to describe changes she encountered in formerly working-class London neighborhoods, and sociologists first began applying the term to New York City (and elsewhere) in the 1970s. Since entering the mainstream lexicon, the word “gentrification” is applied broadly and interchangeably to describe a range of neighborhood changes, including rising incomes, changing racial composition, shifting commercial activity, and displacement of original residents. (4)

The reports main findings are

  • While rents only increased modestly in the 1990s, they rose everywhere in the 2000s, most rapidly in the low-income neighborhoods surrounding central Manhattan.
  • Most neighborhoods in New York City regained the population they lost during the 1970s and 1980s, while the population in the average gentrifying neighborhood in 2010 was still 16 percent below its 1970 level.
  • One third of the housing units added in New York City from 2000 to 2010 were added in the city’s 15 gentrifying neighborhoods despite their accounting for only 26 percent of the city’s population.
  • Gentrifying neighborhoods experienced the fastest growth citywide in the number of college graduates, young adults, childless families, non-family households, and white residents between 1990 and 2010-2014. They saw increases in average household income while most other neighborhoods did not.
  • Rent burden has increased for households citywide since 2000, but particularly for low- and moderate-income households in gentrifying and non-gentrifying neighborhoods.
  • The share of recently available rental units affordable to low-income households declined sharply in gentrifying neighborhoods between 2000 and 2010-2014.
  • There was considerable variation among the SBAs [sub-borough areas] classified as gentrifying neighborhoods; for example, among the SBAs classified as gentrifying, the change in average household income between 2000 and 2010-2014 ranged from a decrease of 16 percent to an increase of 41 percent. (4)

The report provides a lot of facts for debates about gentrification that often reflect predetermined ideological viewpoints. The fact that jumped out to me was that a greater percentage of low-income households in non-gentrifying neighborhoods were rent burdened than in gentrifying neighborhoods. (14-15)

This highlights the fact that we face a very big supply problem in the NYC housing market — we need to build a lot more housing if we are going to make a serious dent in this problem. The De Blasio Administration is on board with this — the City Council needs to get on board too.

Lots more of interest in the Furman report — worth curling up with it on a rainy afternoon.


Housing and Transportation Affordability Index

The Center for Neighborhood Technology has a Housing and Transportation Affordability Index which

provides a more comprehensive way of thinking about the true affordability of place. It presents housing and transportation data as maps, charts and statistics for 917 metropolitan and micropolitan areas—covering 94% of the US population. Costs can be seen from the regional down to the neighborhood level.

The recent focus on combined housing and transportation costs is very useful when planning affordable housing policies as total housing and transportation costs provide a better guide to housing cost burden than housing costs alone.

The Housing and Transportation Affordability Index

shows that transportation costs vary between and within regions depending on neighborhood characteristics:

  • People who live in location-efficient neighborhoods—compact, mixed-use, and with convenient access to jobs, services, transit and amenities—tend to have lower transportation costs.
  • People who live in location-inefficient places—less dense areas that require automobiles for most trips—are more likely to have higher transportation costs.

The traditional measure of affordability recommends that housing cost no more than 30% of household income. Under this view, a little over half (55%) of US neighborhoods are considered “affordable” for the typical household. However, that benchmark fails to take into account transportation costs, which are typically a household’s second-largest expenditure. The H+T Index offers an expanded view of affordability, one that combines housing and transportation costs and sets the benchmark at no more than 45% of household income.

When transportation costs are factored into the equation, the number of affordable neighborhoods drops to 26%, resulting in a net loss of 59,768 neighborhoods that Americans can truly afford. The key finding from the H+T Index is that household transportation costs are highly correlated with urban environment characteristics, when controlling for household characteristics.

A lot of housing policy rests on the definition of affordability, whether it is that housing cost should be no more than 30% of household income or that housing and transportation costs should be no more than 45% of household income. It would be useful for researchers to take a fresh look at those benchmarks to ensure that they make sense in today’s economy.