What Do We Mean By Affordable Housing?

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Samantha Melamed puts the controversy over the Kenyatta Johnson Housing Shortage Bill in a more helpful context, describing it as a clash between competing visions of an affordable housing agenda.

I think any discussion of affordable housing in Philadelphia ought to start with this fact:

“In the Philadelphia region, moderate-income households are faced with average housing and transportation costs exceeding 90 percent of their income in some neighborhoods.”

90%! Think about that. People in some neighborhoods are spending 9 out of every 10 dollars on housing and transportation.

What ought to be clear to people is that you cannot even dent this problem by putting price controls on a few hundred apartments.

But that is basically the Kenyatta Johnson plan. He’s accepting the market forces that are pushing up rents in Point Breeze (rising prices in more central neighborhoods, a shortage of PB housing, growing amenities and shrinking crime rates, etc), and is just trying to carve out a few cheaper units for a relatively small number of residents.

That’s a losing approach. Those market forces aren’t going to stop pushing up rents even if Councilman Johnson succeeds in sticking a fake low pricetag on a small fraction of the neighborhood’s homes. That’s a vision for a sea of expensive housing with a few islands of subsidized rents. It’s just not a robust strategy.

To actually lower housing costs for everyone, you have to attack the market prices at the source – by building a shit-ton of housing. My definition of affordable housing is an abundance of housing, where there’s always a little too much supply on the market and market prices stay low.

The right way to attack the high market prices is to attack the housing shortage. The land in Point Breeze is going to keep getting more expensive. The real choice before politicians is whether they’ll let rising land prices keep eating up more and more of residents’ disposable income, or whether they’ll let people build more housing.

Housing does not have to be expensive. The raw materials to make an apartment don’t cost that much, relatively speaking. That’s not what people are having trouble affording.

And while construction labor costs in Philly tend to be a little higher, it sure isn’t rising wages that are driving up rents.

What’s driving up housing costs is the demand for land. Land prices are rising because more people want to use land in Point Breeze.

Which is fine! Anything you’d want to do to improve the neighborhood will attract more people. It’s what you do after you start attracting the people that determines whether the housing stays affordable or not.

Too often politicians representing growing neighborhoods react the way Councilman Johnson has reacted – by misidentifying the problem as too much new construction, and trying to halt new development, when the real problem is too little housing.

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