Mobility Still Matters

Posted by John Emmeus Davis on July 23, 2013

Security is the holy grail of housing policy. Wherever people are perched on the housing tenure ladder, be they renters or homeowners, they are better off when they are able to hang onto their housing for as long as they need it.

They are better off, too, when they are able to leave that housing should their circumstances change, transitioning from a form of housing that no longer meets their needs to one that does. It is not enough to pass laws and create homes that make it easier for people of modest means to stay put. We must also make it easier for them to move on.            

One of many effects of the Great Recession has been a shift in public policy and nonprofit programming from a focus on helping lower-income families “move to opportunity” to a focus on helping renters and homeowners to keep what they’ve already got. That’s understandable. 

When too many people are living on the street, the immediate concern must be getting them shelter. When too many buildings are crumbling from neglect, the immediate concern must be protecting the health and safety of the occupants. When too many short-lived affordability covenants are expiring on multi-unit projects created through public subsidies or inclusionary mandates, the immediate concern must be preserving this low-cost housing. When millions of landlords and homeowners are delinquent on their mortgages or tempted simply to walk away from housing now valued at less than what is currently owed, the immediate concern must be preventing foreclosures and abandonment.

Security tends to trump mobility when so much housing is at risk, calling into question nearly every initiative easing the transition of lower-income people into better housing, including programs that help people who are homeless to move into secure rentals; programs that help families who are poor to leave concentrations of poverty in favor of neighborhoods with a healthier mix of incomes, services, and jobs; and programs that help renters to purchase homes.

Homeownership itself has come under fire. For the first time in nearly three generations, a chorus of doubt has challenged the wisdom of turning lower-income renters into first-time homeowners, suggesting that foreclosures have risen because homeownership has been “oversold” by public policy, private lending, and nonprofit programming. 

The clamor for security can make the case for mobility harder to hear. Indeed, any talk of enhancing choices, multiplying options, and facilitating the movement of lower-income people from one rung on the housing tenure ladder to another can seem ludicrous when so many renters and homeowners are trying desperately to stay right where they are.    

But there is nothing funny about families being stuck in housing that doesn’t meet their needs, either because it provides too little or demands too much. There is nothing frivolous about fighting for a system of affordable housing that is diverse enough and flexible enough to allow families whose size, make-up, income, or health may have changed substantially since move-in day to move somewhere else.

We don’t have such a system, of course. We have, instead, a housing tenure ladder that is badly in need of repair:

  • At the bottom, there are missing rungs between living on the street and being ready to rent. And when people with a history of being homeless or underhoused do find services and supports that may improve their odds of being successful as a tenant, they cannot find housing they can afford.
  • In the middle, there are too few rungs between renting and owning. Renters of modest means are left with little choice but to try their luck at leaping the gap between a form of housing with too few rights and rewards toward a form of housing with too many responsibilities and significant risks. Not only is the chasm too wide for many to cross; those who do often lose their footing.  Nearly half of the low-income households who manage to climb into homeownership revert to renting within five years.
  • At the top of the housing tenure ladder, there are millions of homeowners who need to get out, but cannot. They would gladly “revert to renting” – or voluntarily accept an alternative form of resale-restricted, owner-occupied housing with fewer responsibilities – but they see no easy way to descend to a lower rung.  Elderly homeowners of modest means make up the majority of this population.  Many of them are forced to remain in housing they can scarcely afford and barely maintain only because they have no realistic options for moving somewhere else.

The critics of policies and programs favoring homeownership over all other forms of housing are partially right.  Homeownership has been “oversold.” But homeownership of a particular kind: market-rate, go-it-alone houses and condominiums in which low-income owners not only get all the sticks in the traditional “bundle of rights”; they are also susceptible to getting the shaft.

The answer to these critics lies not in giving up on mobility, however, nor in relinquishing the worthy goal of helping renters to gain more of the benefits traditionally reserved only for homeowners. It lies in rethinking and rebuilding a housing tenure ladder that has made marketrate homeownership its only desirable destination. That would mean multiplying the types and tenures of housing at every level, making it easier to ascend – or descend – in smaller steps. That would mean paying as much attention in our policies and programs to removing barriers to the transition between rungs as we now devote to removing dangers that threaten the precarious hold that lower-income people have on the housing that is theirs.  

It may also be time to rethink the ladder as our main metaphor for mobility. I have been more guilty than most in employing this imagery, so it behooves me to say that a ladder may be useful in helping to visualize what is broken about our current system of affordable housing, but it gets in the way of valuing what results when that system is fixed. If mobility is to matter as much as security, then every form of tenure must matter as much as market-rate homeownership, that tenure loudly promoted, heavily subsidized, and widely desired as being “the best.” Our ladder must be turned on its side – or bent into a wheel – to create a continuum of housing options through which people may move voluntarily and expeditiously in either direction, as their circumstances change. Along that continuum, all tenures are good if they are made secure; all transitions are good if they do a better job of meeting the current needs of households who have prudently exchanged one bundle of rights, re-sponsibilities, risks, and rewards for another.

Assigning mobility a place of honor at the table of policy and practice does not mean shouldering security aside. Security is enhanced when people must carry only those burdens they are able to bear. Mobility is enhanced when people can find an abundance of housing that is both affordable and secure at every point on the continuum. These public goods are complementary, not contradictory. They are partners of equal worth. In a turbulent time of housing insecurity and public austerity, security matters a lot. So does mobility.

(Photo by Robert Couse-Baker CC BY)

About the author more »

John Emmeus Davis is a partner and co-founder of Burlington Associates in Community Development, a national consulting cooperative specializing in the development of policies and programs promoting permanently affordable, owner-occupied housing. He was the housing director for Burlington, Vermont in the mayoral administrations of Bernie Sanders and Peter Clavelle. He also planned and coordinated the city’s Enterprise Community. Davis has taught housing policy and neighborhood planning at Tufts University, New Hampshire College, the University of Vermont, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was on the founding board of the National CLT Academy and served for a number of years as the Academy’s Dean.

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