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What Is the True Cost of Affordable Housing?

KRHA Homes in Riverview

KHRA Homes in Riverview -- These tidy single-family and duplex homes replaced the low-rise rowhouse style public housing units that formerly stood in the Riverview neighborhood of Kingsport, Tennessee.
Photo Credit: Audrey F. Henderson © 2011, 2012, all rights reserved.

The United Nations has projected that by the middle of the present century, two-thirds of humanity will live in towns and cities.  A large proportion of these urban inhabitants will be poor. Quite simply, safe, decent and affordable living space is a social justice issue. Further, the dichotomy between affordable housing on the one hand and sustainability on the other presents a false choice.

The social consequences of failing to deal with the housing and other social needs of the urban poor should give one pause.  Does anyone really believe that glittering, affluent sustainable communities will prevail indefinitely against a crush of increasingly disaffected, not to mention desperate and angry slum dwellers trapped in crumbling tenements and shanties, either in the industrial or the developing world? 

The coming urban crush will only be accelerated as more and more farmers and other rural dwellers, especially in the developing world, find that they can no longer sustain themselves or their families from the land (or sea) due to the effects of climate change or other ecological and geopolitical factors. This combination of factors looms as a potential environmental and human disaster, as overcrowded living conditions merge with inadequate infrastructure and insufficient resources to create a perfect storm of catastrophic proportions, and not just in areas populated by disadvantaged residents.  Anyone who has read The Plague knows that disease makes no distinction between rich and poor, slum dweller and penthouse inhabitant.

Nonetheless, many individuals and families in this country envision a detached, single family home in the suburbs with its expansive lawn as a reward which they have earned by virtue of hard work.  For them, being asked to embrace such concepts as "smart growth," "infill development" and "mixed use" are viewed as deprivation or even punishment, an unfair sacrifice thrust upon them in favor of "undeserving" or "lazy" individuals who expect a free ride.

Further, the United States remains a car-centric society, in spite of sharp increases in gas prices. However, in 2011, public transportation enjoyed its highest level of ridership in more than 50 years, and transportation has emerged as an important aspect of housing affordability – along with the intriguing concept of transit-focused residential commercial and industrial development.  All indications point to far-flung suburbs situated miles and miles away from urban infrastructure becoming increasingly unsustainable – not to mention unaffordable – as peak oil becomes an undeniable reality.   Some particularly dire predictions project that  many American suburbs will eventually be transformed into blighted areas of concentrated poverty, much like some European suburbs – as  more affluent individuals opt to return to center urban areas.

Promoting the use of sustainable building practices and materials along with foresight in urban planning could do much to mitigate the environmental impact of increased concentration of human settlement in urban areas.  Nonetheless, many developers insist that incorporating sustainability in building and maintenance is too costly for any but the most upscale residential areas, citing expensive construction materials and labor intensive building methods. These same developers insist that it is impossible to recoup the outlay involved in eco-friendly materials and features, not to mention make a profit any other way. 

As a result, ecologically oriented, sustainable close-in developments are primarily marketed toward affluent residents, deep-pocket commercial ventures and large industrial clients.   Following these well-heeled residents is an influx of amenities previously absent from the oftentimes previously desolate areas, such as commercial vendors, banks, and grocery stores.   The ironic downside is that long-time low income residents frequently find themselves priced out of these revitalized, sustainability oriented, walkable neighborhoods by affluent former suburbanites opting for the convenience and lower transportation costs of the center city and close-in suburbs.

For example, before its takeover in 2010 by Amalgamated Bank, the Winthrop Club condominium complex prominently advertised itself as the only high-rise in Evanston designed to meet stringent LEED standards set by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC).  As of March 2012, prices for a one-bedroom unit in the high-rise complex, renamed One Evanston, exceeded $230,000. A family with even one child would be faced with paying a minimum of nearly three hundred thousand dollars for a two-bedroom unit in this condominium building.  Larger units with three bedrooms range in price from just under $500,000 to more than $1 million. Moderate income families could never afford to live in this development, let alone working class or poor households.       

Evanston lies just north of the city of Chicago, on the southern edge of the North Shore, one of the most affluent areas in the Chicagoland region. There are no large concentrations of public housing here. Maintaining a stock of affordable housing presents an ongoing trial for the affluent suburban area.  However, Evanston represents one of the more racially and economically diverse suburbs on the North Shore. In recognition of this fact, and to its credit, Evanston is in the process of conducting a city-wide Strategic Plan.  Among the ambitious goals of the initiative is increasing the city's affordable housing stock.

Affordable housing projects exist both in the United States and abroad that demonstrate that it is indeed possible to develop building materials, construction methods and maintenance practices which will not exhaust the infrastructure of urban areas – or destroy such essential resources as clean drinking water, arable land and fresh air. Further, innovative materials, methods and practices can be applied to produce living spaces and communities that are affordable for residents and which present financial rewards to nonprofit agencies and private developers alike.


Modular Housing
Modular Housing -- Modular housing represents one option for holding down construction costs for affordable housing while maintaining high quality materials and workmanship.
Photo Credit: Audrey F. Henderson © 2008, 2012, all rights reserved.


For example, prefabricated houses, once dismissed because of often substandard materials and shoddy workmanship, are now recognized as a viable means of providing economical as well as well constructed and attractive housing.  The concept of "smart growth" and intentionally increased density is an urban planning concept widely discussed and investigated in Canada, which could be one facet of a comprehensive plan to develop sustainable, affordable housing which would also yield sufficient profit to attract innovative developers.

Public-private partnerships represent another option for developing sustainable, affordable housing, and have become increasingly common between municipal and higher level governmental entities and social entrepreneurs (including progressively oriented developers). These forward-thinking individuals and entities recognize that promoting social and environmental justice is not only the right thing to do or even imperative to the continued tenability of urban life — it can also be a boon to the bottom line

The Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) is presently conducting what it calls a "recalibration" of its Plan for Transformation, designed to relocate ALL of its approximately 25,000 eligible public housing residents from dilapidated, isolated units to newly constructed mixed income communities, or into rehabilitated public housing units reintegrated with the surrounding neighborhood grid. The initiative represents an attempt to make it financially feasible for lower-income residents to remain in desirable close-in areas.

The CHA, like many public housing developments in the United States, was originally designed as transitional housing for working-class families. Instead, the CHA and other public housing developments ultimately came to symbolize a failed policy of warehousing the poor into isolated, concentrated areas of extreme poverty and few or no social services.  The broad-ranging Plan for Transformation is the CHA's recognition and response to the tragedy of much of public housing in Chicago and nationwide.

Social Housing in Helsinki
Social Housing in Finland -- These social housing units (photo, left) located near Helsinki, Finland, enjoy the same access to cultivated landscaping as the more expensive market-rate residences (photo, right).
Photo Credit: Audrey F. Henderson © 2007, 2012, all rights reserved.


Kingsport, Tennessee, located in the far northeastern corner of the state, characterizes an interesting small-town case study in progress.  The Kingsport Housing and Redevelopment Authority recently demolished ALL the public housing in the historically-black neighborhood of Riverview, and replaced it with single family homes and low-slung duplexes that blend seamlessly with the housing stock in the neighborhood. The plan represents a much smaller scale version of Chicago's Plan for Transformation, and has been widely recognized as a success.

A similar approach has been employed in social housing located just outside Helsinki in Finland.  Only close inspection reveals the subtle differences in the social housing structures, which are located in amazingly close proximity to upscale housing for much more affluent residents.  The social housing displays somewhat more functional and plain materials, while the market rate residences display a bit more embellishment and "finish."

Just as decent, affordable housing is (or at least should be) a basic human right, inclusion is (or should be) viewed as an inherent social value.  There is much wisdom to be drawn from this approach – and the cost of neglect is too high for this country – or for the world – to afford.