Home > Uncategorized > Who Could Oppose Affordable Housing? In the Abstract, No One… But When that Housing is Going to be Located Down the Street? THAT is a Different Issue.

Who Could Oppose Affordable Housing? In the Abstract, No One… But When that Housing is Going to be Located Down the Street? THAT is a Different Issue.

April 2, 2021

President Biden’s ambitious “infrastructure” initiative includes lots of spending for items that some might not include as infrastructure. One item that might raise some eyebrows is the the notion of earmarking $213 billion to “build, preserve and retrofit more than two million homes and commercial buildings,” particularly since that investment is linked to incentives and regulations to “eliminate state and local exclusionary zoning laws.” NY Times columnist Jamielle Bouie notes in today’s op ed column. “Affordable Housing Shouldn’t be an Oxymoron” that these zoning regulations “…raise the price of housing through strict limits on the amount of housing that can be built in the first place and the form homes take when they do get built.”  

As readers of this blog realize, I have long opposed the practice of exclusionary zoning, which directly contributes to economic segregation and indirectly contributes to racial segregation. Mr. Bouie, who is African American, doesn’t mention race or racism, but his concluding paragraphs DO address the affect of zoning regulations on the economic divide in our country: 

The fact of the matter is that any serious attempt to reduce inequality and increase workers’ share of income has to make housing a priority. High costs are a tax on workers, paid to landlords, banks and affluent homeowners who reap the gains of tight supply and high demand.

It’s that last point that raises an important question about the politics of the administration’s housing proposal. The college-educated, high-income voters who helped put Biden in office are also some of the same voters who oppose most new affordable housing construction, especially when it might be near them — voters whose supposed liberal openness does not extend to their own neighborhood. This is true in cities as large as San Francisco or as small as Charlottesville, Va., where I live.

The Biden coalition is not likely to fracture over the size of the infrastructure bill or the taxes needed to pay for it. But if there is any issue that might reveal the tensions and fault-lines inside Biden’s big tent, it is the question of housing — and where, exactly, the least fortunate Americans are supposed to live.

The community I live in, Hanover, NH, built “affordable housing” on a hard-to-develop lot on a rocky and tree covered site within walking distance of free public transportation. The project took 13 years to complete and opened in 2016. Since the mixed housing development was conceived with low income and affordable housing as part of the plan, and since housing stock is very hard to find in our region, the “regular” apartments and homes all sold for market value even though 15 of the 120 +/- units were “affordable”. 

That was a marked contrast to what happened in a rural VT community nearby, where neighbors pushed back when a “beautiful hayfield” was identified by the local government as an ideal site for “affordable housing”. The town, which supported Biden by 77-23, voted against earmarking the land for that use and instead sought to raise money to conserve the hayfield for posterity. 

As one who lives on a quiet country road I can appreciate the need for serenity and I am not certain how I might react if the farmstead up the street from me was converted into a high-end subdivision let alone high density “affordable housing”. On the one hand I would dislike the inevitable increase in traffic that would accompany any development, but on the other it would not likely affect the resale value of my home and it might help diminish the cost for some services. 

So where, exactly, ARE the least fortunate Americans supposed to live? If the local experience is any indication, the best bet is to identify a hard-to-develop property on a busy road that is accessible to public transportation that offers a means to local workplaces. There are such lots and, in some cases reparable properties, in virtually every small town and city across the country. $213,000,000,000 wouldn’t begin to make a dent in the need for affordable housing… but it COULD provide a template for bringing affordable housing to communities across the country.  

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