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Has the term “affordable housing” lost its meaning?

New “luxury student housing” has been built near the University of Florida, adding thousands of apartment units for students.
Credit: Kim Tanzer

OPINION

BY KIM TANZER

In recent years, some people have redefined affordable housing as “housing that is affordable, where people want to live, work, and play.”  

At first, I thought this new definition was an attempt to reduce the stigma associated with the term, which has for years been applied to housing for those in deep poverty. Now I realize these same words have come to mean very different things to different people.

We saw this problem in a recent City Commission meeting. Several speakers argued that there is not enough “affordable housing” in Gainesville.  

The first, speaking against the police department’s planned clearing of homeless encampments, argued that Gainesville’s unhoused have nowhere to go. Others continued, explaining it is deeply unsettling for people living in fragile circumstances to have their worlds literally turned upside down. These speakers made important arguments on behalf of people who cannot speak for themselves.

Homeless encampments are found in many wooded areas throughout Gainesville.
Credit: Kim Tanzer

Another speaker explained that her landlord had raised her rent dramatically. She expressed alarm at the steep increase foisted upon her and other tenants. She, too, has a legitimate point.

Unfortunately, hers is an increasing national problem, as COVID relief and mandated rent freezes expire.  Corporations are purchasing residential rental properties, often implementing steep rent increases.  Locally, some landlords are adjusting rents upwards because they realize the market will bear such increases, as demonstrated by rents charged for new “luxury student apartments.” Some landlords cite increased local taxes and fees, government-mandated improvements, rising insurance rates, and inflation to justify rent hikes.

Home prices in desirable neighborhoods like Forest Ridge are nearly out of reach for some house hunters, becoming a special concern for young first-time buyers.
Credit: Kim Tanzer

Still another speaker, a young man, expressed frustration that because housing prices have risen dramatically, he will never be able to buy a home. This argument had been previewed by incoming City Commissioner Eastman who, during his inaugural remarks, referred to a young family who had struggled to afford a $350,000 home in Forest Ridge. Their problem, too, is part of a national challenge.

All these concerns are real–and deeply felt by those who took the time to present them publicly. As a community, I hope we will create opportunities to discuss, in depth, these housing issues, and others.  

The concerns presented, though, reflect many systemic imbalances, not one “thing” called “affordable housing.” How can we differentiate between housing for those currently unhoused, those struggling to pay sizable rent increases, and those seeking to buy a home in a desirable neighborhood during a period of historic inflation? What are the root causes of each problem, and what might be useful responses? 

To begin, we should acknowledge that the so-called “Econ 101” logic–that increased supply of housing units will automatically reduce cost per unit–does not apply, for several reasons.

First, Gainesville is not a closed housing market, so it can never reach mathematical equilibrium. As people move to the area—snowbirds, people looking for tax benefits Florida offers, people leaving larger cities, perhaps “climate refugees”—demand for housing increases. The Econ 101 proponents hope new housing starts will simply outpace in-migration, causing prices to drop.  

Data weakens this argument. According to the City’s 2020 “Blueprint For Affordable Housing,” Gainesville has a 17% rental vacancy rate. A recent NPR report indicates that, contrary to many cities, Gainesville has a 7% oversupply of units. How many more units would we need for the oversupply to “trickle down,” reducing the price per unit of housing?

Second, a significant portion of Gainesville’s population is college students, and they have access to income that non-student residents don’t have. Some students choose to take out college loans to pay their rent, whatever the price. Some students have wealthy parents paying for their housing. This means that a large part of our population has access to “outside” money for housing, beyond that available to our permanent residents, within the local economy.

Third, historic changes, including the pandemic and changes in monetary and tax policies, have rocked our local real estate market. Economists call these “externalities.” Four years ago, Zoom barely existed, and few people telecommuted from home. Three years ago, luxury student housing, much now located in tax-friendly Opportunity Zones, was barely under construction. Two years ago, mortgage interest rates were just above 2%, making mortgage payments historically low and driving up purchase prices. Last year, inflation was at a 40-year high. It will take time for these shock waves to subside.

Neither “affordable housing” nor “housing that is affordable” can resolve the kaleidoscopic challenges of contemporary American life. Our first step, locally, must be to reset the conversation, by agreeing on what the term “affordable housing” means. Only then can we collectively try to figure out who, and how, we can help. 

The opinions expressed by letter or opinion writers are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of AlachuaChronicle.com. Letters may be submitted to info@alachuachronicle.com and are published at the discretion of the editor.

  • KIM TANZER’S opinion is right on, as far as it goes. However, in Alachua County and G’ville, ‘affordable housing’ means Section Eight government subsidized housing, at least to the incompetent politicians dictating things.

    • I am not so sure. Through this single family zoning discussion, it became evident (to me at least) in remarks of commissioners, remarks before commissioners, and social media discussion that to many, “affordable housing is housing I can afford”, and “I should be able to live anywhere I wish and afford it.” You can see the problem with this definition. There are major swaths of the United States that are not affordable to me, but I can afford Gainesville. If I could not, I would move somewhere more affordable or invest in my human capital to make me valuable enough to make enough money to afford to live where I wish. The terms “affordable housing” SHOULD refer to subsidized housing for people who cannot afford any housing and lack the means to follow either of these strategies.

  • Affordable housing is simply what one can afford to pay. In my history of housing, I lived in housing that I could afford that was not what I would have liked to live in. Yet it was acceptable as I made it that way.

    There are options to receive assistance. And many of them are being funded by others through taxation. But those that own these properties must not be controlled to prevent them from allowing the free market to set their rental price.

    To find affordable housing in the past, many people moved out of the City of Gainesville to other communities. Could it be that a better transportation system could be employed to provide more affordable transportation to Gainesville from these communities?

    The bottom line is there are ways for people to have affordable housing if they simply make an effort to do so.

  • There are some changes that could be done to make housing less expensive. Changing the building code to permit tiny homes would be an example of this. This should be looked into.

  • Local building codes make it nearly impossible to build affordable housing. Plus the bank loans won’t stick their necks out. But it’s very simple and can be done if they really wanted to reverse the many social, criminal and personal problems caused by high cost housing.

  • Affordable housing means free housing or government assisted.
    It does not mean a house you can afford to buy or rent that’s cheap…next thing you know, the fascist mask wearing Marxists will try to impose rent control.

    • You got it Jimmy…I raised my rents 50% because of the city’s tyranny. My rents are still affordable but their Marxist plan backfired and made things more expensive….the unintended consequences of government intervention…

      • Mr. Thumbs down commie: my tenants love me because I can charge them another $250/month
        And still be affordable and I don’t…it was the government who rocked the boat, not me.. my tenants have been with me for years and will tell you I’m the best…it was hard telling them I was raising the rent but they understood….all they did with foisting that landlord ordinance on me was make me 100% richer….even if they tried to impose rent control…laughing my way all the way to the bank!

  • People used to say NE Gainesville was a bargain compared to the rest of the city. It was an option for “affordable housing.” That’s not really the case anymore, at least not until you start going pretty far east. Personally, I would favor a moratorium on most new large-scale development here for the next five years or so. Let the market stabilize, and let a lot more of the empty rental units fill up which should enable some landlords to actually lower rents for everyone.

    • It’s too late. Our dollars ain’t worth sh!t anymore because of all the printing…inflation…rent is only going up. Just like groceries are going up. All those people who stayed home and got paid are getting their just desserts now.

  • I think the biggest problem stems from “Opportunity Zones” created under Trump’s administration, which in Gainesville were designated in areas where inexpensive rents were still available. That has pulled the rug out from under lots of folks who cannot afford what is being put up to replace this housing.

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