THE COST OF A PROMISING FUTURE:
HOUSING TODAY, AND TOMORROW

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This study of housing problems facing the New York metropolitan region, a joint effort of the Citizens Housing & Planning Council and the Regional Plan Association, is timely and important. It’s a follow-up to a 2004 study by the same collaborating organizations, entitled “Out of Balance: The Housing Crisis from a Regional Perspective,” which focused on trends. The new report, concise and well-argued, is an easy evening’s read and zeroes right in on recommended solutions — three specific areas of policy — rather then wallowing in accusations about societal failure. This is its strength.

The initial paragraphs of the report recognize that the region’s high cost of housing is not entirely without value, and is a partial indication of the area’s competitiveness due to its “high quality of life and promising future.” The case for the growing un-affordability of housing is presented, but without relying on the term “crisis,” as had the earlier report. The report acknowledges that a large majority of the region’s citizens are, as are most Americans, well housed. Nearly 70% nationally are homeowners, and many do not spend an unreasonable amount of their income on housing, but do rely on the appreciating value of their homes for kids’ college tuitions or a retirement nest egg.

In most parts of the world such statistics would be considered a stupendous success. What problem? Case closed. It says something poignant – and positive – about Americans that our drive for perfectibility remains. Times may be good for most, but that doesn’t warrant lethargy, or ignoring early warnings of shifting fortunes. While noting the ongoing difficulty that the poor have in finding adequate housing, especially as housing costs rise, the report’s focus is aimed more on the new pressures facing the middle of the middle class, or the traditional blue-collar sector. These generally moderate-income households, normally not eligible for subsidized housing, are increasingly disadvantaged and increasingly financially stretched in a rising housing market. And this does represent a turn for the worse, because this particular demographic cohort was able to participate in the mid-20th century version of the American Dream, facilitated by William Levitt and his fellow tract-home subdivision constructors.

The three sets of recommendations offered for reversing such a downward trend are not uniformly easy to achieve. The first group favors increasing regional cooperation in land use practice reform. The specific recommendations promote things like two-family and multi-unit construction, reinvestment in the region’s smaller cities, renewal of existing housing stock, increasing densities around transit, greater mixing of uses, revitalization of traditional main streets, and mandating affordability set-asides through inclusionary zoning. Such ideas are eminently reasonable and slowly gaining currency nationally under the rubric of “new urbanism” and “smart growth” campaigns.

The second set of recommendations favors investment in public infrastructure, transportation especially, but also reform of public school finance. In addition to supporting an increase in intra-suburban reverse-commute transit and public transit generally, the report admonishes transportation planners to plan additional capacity with a view to guiding development patterns rather than focusing on bottleneck elimination, a wise suggestion. The bolder recommendations focus on developing alternatives to local property taxes as the principal source for funding education. If a substitute funding source can be found, it will ease some of the resistance that many suburban communities have to additional residential development, particularly of the affordable kind, as it is commonly felt that such development adversely burdens school budgets. Additionally, the report suggests that communities receive compensation for fiscal burdens, on schools for example, caused by local affordable housing programs. A potential monetary source for such compensation is not identified, however.

The third cluster of recommendations focuses on housing finance. These include proposals such as creating dedicated state housing trust funds, tax credits for employer-assisted housing, acquisition funds to preserve lower-rent housing, and generally increasing grant subsidy programs for lower- and moderate-income housing. Again, the needed sums and sources for such funding are not discussed, though one suspects that they would equal a rounding error of annual defense department allotments. So, these constitute another set of sensible propositions, but require a substantial shift in national budgetary priorities.

If a fault is to be found in the report, it may be a lack of discussion about the role of wealth — not poverty — in the increase in housing un-affordability. The average size of a new home has nearly doubled in a generation, the list of expected amenities keeps growing, intolerance for adding density to one’s own neighborhood is common, and owners fear that the “wrong” housing developed nearby will lower the value of one’s property. There’s also an overdependence on property, period, for fiscal security as opposed to savings accounts, a hesitation to shift from the single-family model as an ideal, and a bureaucratic slowing-down of development — these are all manifestations of wealth. Such upper-middle-class values (or perhaps neuroses) add to the difficulty of bringing affordable housing on line in many areas. And of course there are remaining, if fewer, darker resistances rooted in intolerance and fear of people unlike oneself.

Some of these issues are hinted at, but require fuller discussion in a different forum. Overall, the report is exemplary, not least for the courage of proposing specific actions to stem harmful trends about which few Americans, not just citizens of metropolitan New York, can be proud.

Alex Krieger, FAIA, is a principal at Chan Krieger Sieniewicz Architecture & Urban Design in Cambridge, Mass. and a professor in Harvard’s Department of Urban Planning and Design, and was a former director of the NEA’s Mayor’s Institute in City Design.

The report can be found at: http://www.rpa.org/pdf/Smart_Region_RPA_CHPC_0806.pdf

– Alex Krieger