HomeOpinionHas the term “affordable housing” lost its meaning?
Has the term “affordable housing” lost its meaning?
January 20, 2023
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.
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.
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 email@example.com and are published at the discretion of the editor.
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