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Moving Forward: Making the case for affordable housing

by Jeffrey Lubell, Center for Housing Policy

Last week, the Center for Housing Policy released its annual Housing Landscape report, which tracks the affordability of housing for America’s working households. In a nutshell, the report found that, despite falling home sale prices, housing affordability worsened between 2008 and 2010 for both working renters and working owners.

The release of Landscape provides a good opportunity to reflect on the question of how to get more people to care about affordable housing. My opinion is that, even as we continue to shine a light on the nation’s housing affordability challenges, we need to work harder to link affordable housing with other core societal values, including health, education, economic mobility and environmental sustainability.

Housing Need

Statistics highlighting the number of Americans with severe housing costs burdens can be very powerful, especially when the number of cost-burdened households is rising, as it has in recent years. This increase provides an important counter-narrative to the widely-held belief that declining housing prices have solved our housing affordability problems.

At the same time, however, a focus on severe housing cost burden frames the problem as one affecting a very limited share of the population. With 19.5 million owner and renter households (see tables A-1A and A-1B of this report) paying more than half their income for housing nationwide, the situation is certainly grave. But if this is the extent of the problem, it means the overwhelming majority of the 110+ million households in America don’t have a serious housing problem.

Broadening the definition of housing problems to include households paying more than 30 percent of their income as well those experiencing moderate or severe housing quality issues greatly expands the number of affected households. Nearly 55 percent of renters and roughly 34 percent of owners reported one of these problems in the 2009 American Housing Survey.

But this approach has limitations of its own. I would expect that many of these individuals understand they have a serious housing problem — think of someone making $23,000 a year and paying 45 percent of income for housing. But surely there are also many in this broader category who would not necessarily see themselves as having a housing problem — consider, for example, someone making $75,000 a year who decides to spend 35% of income to live in a nicer home. And there are still others who are spending less than 30 percent of income on housing but nevertheless have a serious housing problem. A classic example is the individual who drives till she qualifies and ends up with an affordable home but an unaffordable and unbearable commute.

How Housing Matters

So what frame can we use to capture the full range of the problem and expand the sphere of concerned citizens and policymakers? I don’t have the magic bullet to solve this dilemma, but I do have an instinct that suggests we should broaden the dialogue in two ways.

First, we should be attuned to the fact that housing problems often lead to other social problems and reach out to advocates and practitioners working on those other areas to build alliances that help all of us achieve our goals. To cite just a few examples, housing problems can lead to:

  • Health problems — for example, when children get asthma or lead poisoning from poor housing quality or experience stunted growth due to excessive housing costs that leave too little income remaining for nutritious food. Or when individuals with AIDS cannot maintain a consistent treatment regime because they are homeless or a lack of coordination between housing and health programs forces older adults to enter nursing homes prematurely. 
  • Education problems — for example, when high housing costs force families to move from one unstable living environment to another, undermining academic stability and achievement, or when low- and moderate-income families are priced out of neighborhoods with top-quality schools.
  • Transportation, infrastructure and environmental problems. Consider the individual who moves far from his or her workplace because housing is too expensive nearby. Not only will the individual incur higher transportation costs that undermine overall affordability, but now he or she is driving longer distances, which increases traffic congestion and emissions of greenhouse gases. And it may mean we need to build more roads and other infrastructure to service a sprawling population, at great cost to the public.

Housing and Opportunity

Second, I would urge us to consider communications frames that situate housing programs within a larger web of policies and programs that together serve a broad cross-section of America. One promising frame that has gotten a lot of attention lately is “opportunity” in which the role of government is understood as providing everyone with the same opportunity to enter the middle class and achieve their own personal version of the American dream. It’s easy to see a place for a range of housing policies within this framework, including subsidized rental housing – to provide stability for those who need it and an affordable alternative to ownership for those who prefer it — as well as policies to make homeownership more accessible, to expand affordable housing opportunities in good school districts and near public transit stations, etc. At the same time, the opportunity frame also supports investments that improve outcomes in other important areas, including education, health care, workforce development and immigration.

In other words, maybe the way to get a larger share of America to care about the nation’s housing problems is to start focusing on a larger share of the nation’s problems…and demonstrate how decent, safe and affordable housing is essential to the achievement of these broader goals.

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“Moving Forward” is a monthly column about ideas for the future of U.S. housing policy by Jeffrey Lubell, Executive Director of the Center for Housing Policy. The column offers perspectives on the government role in housing and on broader housing market trends likely to shape future housing policy.

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