Monday, July 18, 2005

The Affordable Housing Catch-22

The City of San Diego was one of the first communities in Southern California to say it was going to do something about the shortage of affordable housing. A story in today's San Diego Union-Tribune says it's been three years since the council declared the matter an emergency with little to show for it:
It has been nearly three years since the San Diego City Council declared a housing state of emergency before a packed hall of more than 1,000 people, elevating hopes among affordable housing activists that strong action would follow.

Although the council at the time approved a citywide measure requiring developers to set aside housing in their projects for low-and moderate-income households, most builders have since opted to pay an in-lieu fee, meaning fewer affordable units have been built.

The council did appoint a citizens task force to come up with some housing strategies, but most of the meatiest recommendations were largely ignored or rejected by the council.

More recently, the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce has been pressing the council to embrace its own plan of attack for expanding the supply of affordable housing, while the local Building Industry Association has been regularly sending postcards to San Diego households chiding the council for its inaction.

This is what frustrates wannabe homebuyers to no end. Government says "this is an emergency" and lays down housing requirements, but then makes the escape clause more attractive than the requirements. In the meantime, the builders association steps up and scolds the city for doing nothing, allowing builders to save face. The government also saves face because it can say "we tried." But the citizens who volunteered their time to serve on an advisory panel get ignored. And the people who have no homes now have even less hope than when the process started.

So much of the talk among elected officials and builders is about removing fees and regulations that some say are deterrents to affordable housing. But one must ask why a builder would construct affordable housing in the first place? If the market will bear a higher price for something more, isn't it reasonable to expect that builder to follow the money? That's a reality government has to deal with. How do you encourage affordable housing without devaluing undeveloped property? There are some interesting formulas out there, including financial incentives. But how significant can those incentives really be, especially considering the financial crisis affecting cities nationwide. They can't very well waive all their fees, and even if they did, would it be enough? Something's got to be done, and it is, at the very least, encouraging to see a local government doing more than just talking about the issue.

Also of concern is the definition of "affordable housing." It's no longer a term used to describe "low-income" housing. Now "affordable housing" is being applied to what's affordable to middle class families.

Here are some links to groups dedicated to providing low-income housing:

The National Low Income Housing Coalition

Habitat for Humanity

California Housing Law Project