January 30, 2024
Affordable Housing? Affordable for Whom? What will it take?
By Mike Dobbins, Professor of Practice, Georgia Tech
Jan. 25 – Below, in bullet form, is a comprehensive outline of the housing affordability problem, aimed at deepening understanding of its larger contexts for the purpose of making affordability happen.
- Brief background
- What is housing affordability?
- Housing development is complex
- Why Has Housing Become Unaffordable? Its Very Profitability is the Cause
- Big money’s strategy and tactics
- But the strategy doesn’t work for affordability
- What have been the impacts and threats of the YIMBY initiative?
- The status of zoning in Atlanta – Myths and Facts
- Since upzoning single family neighborhoods does not work, looking on the bright side, how might we get this done?
- Multiple studies have shown that people who have to pay more than a third of their budgets for housing are deemed to be “cost-burdened.” That is, paying more for shelter eats into budgets for life’s other necessities, like food, travel, health, education, and so on
- Ideas for how to address the problem so far are falling short, as the gap between incomes and housing cost continues to widen
- Perhaps understanding the problem in its larger context will advance policies and practices that might help
What is Housing Affordability?
- People use different metrics to define housing affordability, based on HUD guidance and other sources
- I think of affordability as being along a scale between “need” and “choice,” where Area Median Income (AMI) is the midpoint. Affordability worsens as incomes move down the scale, and choice expands as incomes move up.
Housing Development is Complex
- Developing affordable housing, for those few developers for whom affordability is a mission, is even more complex
Presently, zoning has been wrongfully called out by many as the culprit in the affordability crisis; as the diagram below points out, though, zoning by itself plays but a minor role in the overall scheme of things, an understanding of which is important for shaping strategies
Why Has Housing Become Unaffordable? Its Very Profitability is the Cause FOLLOW THE MONEY
- “Growth of asset value [68% of which is real estate] has outstripped returns on labor for four decades” – Francesca Mari, NYT, 5/23/23; put another way, if real estate values rise at twice the rate of wages, of course housing becomes unattainable for more and more households
- The industry’s profitability has attracted huge sums of money from private capital, including hedge funds, private equity, REITs, institutional investors, with “build-to-rent” as a recent fast- growing asset class, altogether bidding up costs exponentially
- Ideologically underpinning these super rich investors are libertarian forces that are bent on diminishing the regulatory and accountability authority of government at all levels; instead they would redirect its resources into the “free” market, measuring their success by profitability – and they’re been scarily successful
- Looking for more paths to further their aims, then, they have identified single family neighborhoods, which make up over two-thirds of most cities’ land areas, as an opportunity, where they view zoning as an obstacle to be overcome – reduce the rules, make more money
Big Money’s Strategies and Tactics:
- Replace local control with top-down, “free” market forces (note: I put “free” in quotes because all markets are interactive with other forces, like government and other public-serving entities -diminishing these removes restraints and accountability for profiteers )
- Responding to affordability anxieties, these forces quickly saw opportunity in aligning with and broadly supporting the YIMBY (yes in my backyard) movement), which was initiated in the San Francisco Bay area to promote diversity in housing choices, not to achieve affordability
- Shaping their attack on zoning, and more specifically single family zoning, these forces mendaciously claim that single family zoning is the cause of the housing affordability crisis; that getting rid of it will boost production and lower housing cost
- Enlisting well-meaning people, many of whom style themselves as “progressive,” they continue to build a widening base – cynical but successful – by painting people living in neighborhoods as mostly well off, mostly white, privileged, and uncaring,
- In fact, most people living in single family neighborhoods here in Atlanta (and elsewhere) are of moderate means, as many people of color as white, and whose neighborhoods are way more vulnerable to predation and displacement – why? because their properties are cheaper!
- In short, YIMBY is a stalking horse in service to “free” enterprise profit at the expense of local accountability
But the Strategy Doesn’t Work! Neither for Production nor Affordability!
- Upzoning single family neighborhoods, (i.e. freeing up more land for investors) to promote developing Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU) does not produce much housing, virtually none affordable, since the new investment raises costs, taxes, insurance rates, and other expenses
- In cities that have tried it – Minneapolis, Portland, Seattle – an average of one housing unit is being built in an upzoned single family neighborhood for every eight built in already properly zoned areas, so no appreciable density
- Virtually none of either type, midrise or ADU, without subsidy, is affordable for people in the “needs” half of the population
- As it happens, here in Atlanta, supply is not the problem, affordability is:
- Atlanta has built about 35,000 housing units in the last ten years; in addition, about 11,000 housing units stand vacant
- So, with a growth in population of about 75,000, we have a rough balance between shelter supply and shelter demand, or nominally less than two people per unit
- How can this be, one asks? Well, the available units are either priced beyond the homeowner or renters’ market’s incomes or the units’ conditions make them uninhabitable without significant capital improvements, altogether pushing them beyond ability to pay
- In short, people on the needs side of the ledger can’t afford what’s available
- Bottom line, without subsidy, the “free” market, whose metric of success is profit, cannot and will not build housing that is affordable for that half of the population that needs it most
What have been the impacts of the YIMBY initiative in other cities and what threats do they pose for Atlanta?
- Getting back to YIMBY, as we have noted, its impacts fall mostly on moderate income neighborhoods, their homeowners and renters and their stability
- Thus people living there take the brunt of speculators and opportunistic property buyers’ investments, which raise purchase prices, tax assessments, insurance, and cause displacement where homeowners and renters can no longer afford to stay
- Homeownership rates, most families’ largest percentage of wealth, are falling, more for Blacks but also for whites
- As a result of top-down upzonings imposed upon them, people in neighborhoods have lost their right and their role to shape their land use and zoning futures
- In this “city in a forest,” the neighborhood character changes as ADUs replace trees, losing trees’ benefits for mitigating heat islands
- Most importantly, neighborhood identity, togetherness, and stability break down, no longer a safe place to call home, damaging Maynard Jackson’s vision of Atlanta as a city of forested neighborhoods, the building blocks of a democratic city
- So, what does zoning have to do with it?
The Status of Zoning in Atlanta – Facts and Myths
- Zoning is not etched in stone – it is always changing
- Atlanta’s Zoning Ordinance, originally drafted in 1984, has changed continuously ever since and now in substance bears little resemblance to the original, contradicting YIMBYs’ claims and many people’s mistaken beliefs
- Zoning is locally controlled
- interacting with the Comprehensive Development Plan that sets forth cities’ or counties’ policies for their futures, City Councils or other local governing bodies enact and emend the ordinances according to ever changing knowledge, aspirations, and the value set of the legislative body majority;
- Through its Neighborhood Planning Unit (NPU) system, Atlanta, unlike most cities, offers all neighborhoods and their citizens a seat at the table where planning and zoning policies evolve; (In most cities, wealthier neighborhoods dominate these processes and policies)
- As it happens, Atlanta is in the midst of a zoning rewrite, ATL Zoning 2.0, which does and will afford neighborhoods, NPUs, and everyday people the opportunity to weigh in on their preferences. Get involved.
Since upzoning single family neighborhoods does not work, looking on the bright side, how might we get this done?
- Safe to say that there’s growing agreement that people ought to be able to afford reliable safe shelter in a stable neighborhood– physical and societal – as basic infrastructure necessary for living a decent life.
To get there, we need to understand the problems in their full complexities and come together to identify ideas that might actually work: below, we organize these under the headings of entitlements, people, land, and money.
Entitlements (we use the term as do developers, i.e. what is permissible):
- Start with provision of affordable housing as a top city policy priority in the Comprehensive Development Plan (CDP), the latest rewrite of which is currently underway
- Make certain that zoning and other entitlements encourage affordable residential development in already densifying business centers, like Downtown, Midtown, Buckhead, and emerging centers like the Ponce City Market area, the Upper West Side, and Greenbriar
- Beyond those centers, the obvious locations, as promoted in the Atlanta City Design book, are to densify along major arterial streets, where there already are transit lines and adequate utility capacity in place, where proper zoning is already in place or easy to achieve; likewise in parking lot dominated neighborhood centers
- These corridors line up comfortably with “missing middle” housing types, a term coined by Daniel Parolek to describe a range of modestly scaled housing types, where he and others already are implementing this densification strategy but as seams and buffers to transition between travel corridors and single family neighborhoods of moderate income homeowners and renters, not to build in them
- Focus strategies to favor building at scale – dozens or hundreds of units, not one-offs
- At the neighborhood scale, as an affordability measure, make certain that zoning does not restrict housing unit sizes (though other housing or building codes should maintain basic livability standards)
- Similarly, minimums in off-street parking in low density residential neighborhoods should not be required (though otherwise not restricted)
- Use of other regulatory entitlements, like instituting quid pro quo provisions for projects that include residential components using the full range of the public sector authority, both incentives and controls
- For what does come onto the market, enact fair tenant laws, protecting against free fire eviction practices and rapacious rent and fee hikes
- Yes, zoning is but one, and others include TADs, infrastructure support, (including streets, utilities, and easements), subdivision regs, environmental requirements, and so on) all of which should interact with each other to produce affordability tactics be considered for their
- Mayor Dickens’s serious commitment
- City agencies that are rising to the challenges, like the Mayor’s housing and neighborhood revitalization unit, the City Planning Department, Invest Atlanta, Atlanta Housing, HouseATL, Atlanta Public Schools, and others
- A handful of place-based community development corporations that are committed and producing units within their capabilities and resources (which need to be vastly increased)
- Non-profit developers, like the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership, the Atlanta Land Trust, Mercy Housing, Purpose Built, Focused Community Strategies, Enterprise Community Partners, Civitas Housing Group and others, actively producing housing for families on the needs side of the housing ledger
- A few private developers who get the urgency and are committed to work toward shelter for all, like Columbia Residential, Integral Group, TriStar real estate, and others
- Faith-based institutions are in various stages of exploring or developing some of their land assets in support of lowering the land cost component for affordable proformas
- Advocacy groups, like the Regional Housing Forum, the ULI Livable Communities Council, The American Friends Service Committee, the Lawyers Guild, the Housing Justice League, Georgia Stand-Up tenants rights groups, some NPUs, YIMBY (which has it wrong), and others
- A new spirit of collaboration under the HouseATL umbrella
- Land availability and land cost are often among the biggest obstacles to producing affordable housing, yet among the many other factors, these may be the most promising, flexible, and effective for writing down the land cost factor in a proforma, potentially including:
- Publicly owned or controlled (like city, school board, state, federal), and faith-owned
- Park land, usually a no-no, but where park design, use, management, and safety could benefit from associated mixed-use housing
- using transfer of development rights to gain land more suitable for both parties in the transaction
- Of course, while not nearly enough to meet the need, aggressively utilize HUD, DCA, LIHTC, historic tax credits, brownfields, and other state or federal programs
- Coordination of funding sources through Enterprise’s funding collective, the Community Foundation and HouseATL frameworks, aimed at understanding funding complexities and collaboration for identifying and streamlining of sources
- Tax moves, like beefing up commercial property taxes, the recipients of which would be affordable housing funding vehicles; (it should be noted that current practices are under a challenge at the Fulton County Development Authority for often unjustified tax breaks, thus inequitably denying resources for the affordability mission)
- Enact a real estate transfer tax whose proceeds would likewise directed to the housing fund vehicle
- Add affordable housing to the list for receiving impact fee proceeds
- Extend the search for money to the use of Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) funding to provide a source of funding for property acquisition in a way that serves both affordable housing and transportation purposes – for example, lowering Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT) for roads and boosting ridership for transit (see these links to previous stories published by CommonFutureATL.com).
- Infrastructure Funds to Support Affordable Housing
- Affordable Housing Along Transit Corridors
MONEY is perhaps the biggest challenge, where now all who want to address the affordability crisis have to compete with each other for relative pittances.