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The landscape of housing affordability: Widespread challenges, local solutions

The landscape of housing affordability in the U.S. is complex and evolving, but the fact remains that millions of working American households continue to face daunting affordability challenges, even as the economy recovers. The Center for Housing Policy’s latest edition of Housing Landscape chronicles the changes in housing costs and wages for low- and moderate-income workers.

According to our analysis of the most recent American Community Survey data, more than one in four low- and moderate-income working renter households spends more than half of its income on housing. While the share of severely cost burdened households fell slightly between 2011 and 2012, there are still more than four million working renter households facing substantial affordability challenges.
Rising incomes and declining costs drove the modest affordability improvements in 2012. Wages of low- and moderate-income working households rose slightly faster than rents, and owner costs continued to fall, which led to a slight decline in the share of severely cost burdened working households.
In the report, the Center finds high housing costs and low incomes remain significant challenges in many parts of the country. The highest cost burdens are in states on the coasts with high-cost metro areas. As the housing market has rebounded and rents have risen, it is very difficult for low- and moderate-wage workers to find affordable housing in these desirable, fast-growing places.
Local Solutions to Housing Challenges
The landscape of housing needs in communities across the country depends on macroeconomic and demographic trends, but in many cases the responses and policy interventions are driven by local capacity and innovation. The Center for Housing Policy is currently working on several projects that highlight effective local programs and is providing support to local government efforts to find solutions to their affordability challenges:
  • Research associate Janet Viveiros has just completed an analysis of home- and community-based supportive service programs that have been effective in helping older adults age in place. She found that there are common elements to successful supportive service programs, but the characteristics of different communities influence which approaches are most successful. Janet profiles successful home- and community-based programs targeting older adults in three types of communities: multifamily buildings concentrated in dense neighborhoods, single-family and multifamily homes clustered in a few neighborhoods, and single-family homes dispersed across a wide geographic area. The final report will be available on the NHC website in March.
  • Senior research associate Maya Brennan is working on a paper analyzing how Moving to Work (MTW) agencies are using flexibility in funding and management to develop successful self-sufficiency programs. Grounded in cutting-edge brain science research on the effect of poverty on mental well-being and decision-making, Maya offers recommendations for how local housing authorities can structure their Family Self-Sufficiency (FSS) programs to increase the potential for low-income families to improve their economic well-being. She shared her research findings with the Fairfax County (VA) Redevelopment and Housing Authority, an NHC member, and members of their community housing group as they begin to design their MTW activities. A final report will be out later this spring.
  • Robert Hickey, another senior research associate at the Center, was invited to participate in a day-long event in Seattle hosted by the mayor and city council as part of their efforts to revise and expand the city’s inclusionary housing programs. Alongside developers and local government officials from communities throughout the west coast, Robert provided information on how other cities have successfully developed productive inclusionary zoning (IZ) programs. His IZ research—including his report on inclusionary housing after the economic downturn—was of tremendous value to the local officials and housing community working to find solutions to Seattle’s affordability challenges.
  • Finally, this week I’m kicking off a year-long project to develop an affordable housing plan for Arlington County, Virginia. In addition to a housing demand and supply analysis and a countywide housing survey, the Arlington study will include a review of successful local housing policies and programs from around the country. The process will include significant input from county housing staff and community leaders, and will culminate in a comprehensive plan affordable housing element.

These research and outreach activities by Center staff underscore the important links we strive to make between policy analysis and program implementation. Understanding that housing affordability challenges across the country are complex and evolving, our work at the local level provides a valuable resource to local housing staff, advocates, developers, and others.

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