“Workforce Housing” Is an Insulting Term

Posted by Miriam Axel-Lute on October 6, 2014

So folks, we need to have a chat about this whole "workforce housing" thing. It's a problem.

Or rather, the way it is often being used these days is a problem, which is as shorthand for housing for people who aren't really low-income, but are still having trouble affording housing in a hot market. Moderate or middle income, depending where you are. ULI defines it as housing for people making 60 to 120 percent of area median income, but I have heard it most often coming up with respect to projects in the upper end of that range (or that range in an area with a very high AMI).

It is meant to be for teachers, cops, nurses. It is being specifically contrasted to "standard" affordable housing.

For example, see this definition from a Business Miami article

Workforce housing policies focus on providing attractive and affordable homes for middle-income service workers, such as police officers, teachers and nurses, in close proximity to their jobs. It is primarily a concern in regions like South Florida with high housing costs. HUD does not distinguish between affordable and workforce housing. But many housing authorities define workforce housing as homes aimed at households earning from 60 percent to 120 percent of the area’s median income (AMI). In contrast, the term affordable housing is generally used for households whose income is less than 60 percent of AMI.

I hope the problem with this is obvious:

The low-wage workforce is still the workforce!!

The vast majority of people making less than 60 percent of AMI (and even a significant portion of those much poorer) are working, and they are working at essential jobs that make our economies function, from home health aide, to school bus driver, to day care worker, to farmworker to cashier.

Not only are these frequently not living wage jobs, they are often jobs with less opportunity for advancement to living wages (and thus those who have them are likely to need housing assistance for longer than people who are likely to get raises and promotions in a few years). These jobs also tend to have inconsistent hours, crappy benefits, and poor working conditions.

But they are unmistakably and unarguably work. Not wanting to accord those jobs dignity and respect as a society is part of what allows them to continue to offer such horrible conditions.

To imply that somehow anyone who is low income is not in the workforce is horribly insulting--and insulting to the very population that has always been community development's core constituency.

Now, I'm not saying we shouldn't try to address the issue that folks at a moderate- to middle-income range and/or in these important and politically appealing professions are struggling with housing affordability and a jobs-housing mismatch. Though it is a challenge in terms of limited resource allocation, it's a reasonable concern not to want a popular community to only house the very wealthy and maybe some lower income folks in more deeply subsidized housing, but to want it to have a full economic mix, and not force a segment of its employees into far-flung commutes.

I also get it, kind of, as to why the term is tempting. After years of fighting the stereotypes neighbors have of affordable housing--that it's going to bring down property values and be full of people who bring crime for example (all of which have been repeated disproven)--it's easy to see why a term that tries by its very name to circumvent those reactions for once and push positive buttons in the brains of those who need convincing is appealing.

Often these developments are explicitly marketed to, or even limited to, particular professions, like teachers or emergency personnel, so there is a bit of an association with specific professions that suggests the idea.

But that's an awfully hollow victory if what we are doing by it is REINFORCING those stereotypes by comparison for the rest of the affordable housing world, who are, it needs to be said, trying to house people with much greater needs and fewer options.

If "workforce housing" means the limited slice of affordable housing it is currently used it to mean, does it not imply that other affordable housing is non-workforce housing? Can't you picture the politicians and neighborhood association leaders you've nominally won over going on to say, "Well, I'm ok with some workforce housing, but not that other stuff. We don't need layabouts in our town."

How could anyone in good conscience do that to the rest of our colleagues?

We have enough trouble with the stigma on the term "affordable housing," which of course replaced "low-income housing" to try to avoid the negative images that term had started to carry. But those terms are loaded because of the associations put on them by opponents, not because of any inherent problem with the terms.

Workforce housing, as it's currently being used, has an inherent problem.

It could be redeemed if we just decided as a field that actually, it just is the new replacement for "affordable housing," and it refers to ALL housing that is built to be affordable to someone who can't afford market rate housing. That could have a bit of a ring to it, even.

Or if we took it back to the original intent of the term, which meant housing near particular job centers affordable to the people who have those jobs, whatever they are. (Caveat there, of course, is that wherever there are concentrations of moderate- and middle-income jobs there are also concentrations of low-wage and poverty-wage jobs supporting them, so true workforce housing for that area would need to be for a range of incomes.)

But neither of those is how I hear it used these days. And if "workforce housing" can't be brought around to one of those meanings, it needs to be retired.

Photo by Flickr user David Tan CC-BY

About the author more »

Miriam Axel-Lute is editor of Shelterforce and associate director of the National Housing Institute. Her email is miriam at nhi dot org.

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Joanne Campbell
14 Oct 14, 7:53 am

I have always refused to use this term exactly for the reasons you note.  It’s always been a highly insulting term for all those workers who earn less than 60% AMI. Whenever I’ve heard it used in my circles I have always expressed my views. Why we as professionals have allowed it to be continued to be used has always puzzled me.

bill lazar
14 Oct 14, 8:22 am

I think you’re giving too much credit to the Business Miami article as the Webster’s definition of affordable housing. In Florida the max cap has always been 120% of the AMI, but most places have targeted anyone under 80% of the AMI for their affordable housing programs. “Workforce housing” did come into play a number of years ago, in part to get away from negative stereo types by people who really didn’t care about affordable housing anyhow.Branding it with the picture of someone such as a nurse or firefighter, was trying to get through to people that “a lot of the workforce” are struggling. That’s still true.Florida has two major problems, one is the disparity between wages and housing costs (especially in the service/tourist industries) and the other is our aging workforce/population and what they will need to remain living safely and independently. Everything is harder for families living under 50% of the AMI, including sufficient funding to assist them.  As long as our housing programs are essentially employer subsidies, it’s still fair to call all of them workforce programs. It doesn’t include the aging population, unless you figure they’re where they are because they didn’t earn a decent wage at one point?

Carol Ott
14 Oct 14, 8:55 am

I prefer the term “middle-income housing”, as a colleague pointed out that someone can still earn money without actually going to work every day—retirees, for example.  They still need housing they can afford, and our middle-class, working or retired, is being passed over in favor of low-income or market-rate housing that is out of reach.

We need to take a step back and understand the importance of economic diversity, especially in our cities, no matter how we define the terms we use.

Mike E
14 Oct 14, 9:04 am

Back in the days when I was involved in local government, I begged people not to use the term “workforce housing.”  At the time, I had a hard time explaining to colleagues why it was an insulting term. 
Since then, I’ve decided that the reason it’s insulting is that it’s the language of the one percent - the language of the elite.  To working people, it sounds like you want to build a factory town, a working class ghetto. 
One of the big differences between the terms “affordable housing” and “workforce housing” is that the first describes the housing itself; the latter describes the people who will live there.  Nobody likes to be labeled. 

It has become clear to me that housing policy or development that encourages the segregation of the population is a failure.

Barbara Navin
14 Oct 14, 9:35 am

Great point, Miriam - I am in total agreement.  As always, the words we use are powerful, and in themselves start to shape public opinion.  Fortunately, those of us in the affordable housing / workforce housing world probably have the ability to affect this change - I’m for it!  How do we bring this about?

Stella Adams
14 Oct 14, 9:35 am

The term that needs to be abandoned is not “Workforce Housing” but the DEFINITION if the housing industry is defining workforce housing as between 60-120 of median that is a poor definition of workforce housing and probably a better definition of “Affordable Housing” because you surely cannot afford housing if you make less than 60% of median.

America has an affordability crisis at ALL points on the income scale.  The median income in any MSA will not support the median home sale price based on the standard measure of affordability.

We are arguing over labels instead of addressing the problem which is stagnant wages, high rents and artificial barriers to homeownership.

14 Oct 14, 9:36 am

Point made. How about “public service housing” instead of “workforce housing”?

Carol Ott
14 Oct 14, 9:54 am

“Public service housing”—all people will hear is “public housing”.  Plus, not everyone who needs middle-income housing is in public service. While I love the idea of teacher/police officer housing—what about the rest of the people who simply can’t afford to pay for housing?  Why narrow the scope to where we’re only getting a small segment of the population?

Anthony M Jones
14 Oct 14, 12:16 pm

Yes, words matter. Our sector is rife with insulting and demeaning terminology. Much of our language needs to be retired.  “Affordable,” “low-income,” “minimum-wage,” “poverty,” “subsidized,” “projects,” even the word “housing” itself are all coded with references to race, class, intelligence, and work ethic.  “Urban” & “inner city” are often veiled references to communities of color. “Single-parent” seldom conjures up images of Katie Couric or Johnny Depp.  I agree that “workforce” is an attempt to fight the stereotype of lazy unemployed welfare mothers.  Like it or not, those images permeate our psyche.  And language is one of the few tools we have to fight against them. Talking about hard-working families resonates much stronger than talking about low-income households, even though they are the same.  Words matter.  A lot of good work is being done over at National Housing Conference toward rethinking how we communicate about our work.  If you haven’t already, please join that conversation.

Having said that, need is not a zero-sum game.  I like to think “and” rather than “or.” In spite of the ULI planners urge to define, in my area, no one can argue that low-income workers are not part of the workforce. Florida law certainly sets no bottom.  Our Trust fund, while serving up to 120%, has a set-aside for <50% and, this year, even for homeless. Yes, some nurses may need assistance, but more often it is the housekeepers & phlebotomists.  If teachers are priced out of the market, you can be certain that cafeteria workers & janitors are as well. In the mixed-income properties in my community, the latter are more likely to be occupants than the former.

Still, I would argue that the most underserved populations are those above 60% of AMI, particularly in rental.  The LIHTC, HOME, Tax-exempt Bonds, Housing Choice Vouchers, 811, 202, even the new National Housing Trust Fund all concentrate on people below 60%.  There is precious little assistance directed toward people at 61% or 72% or even 99%. We have drawn this imaginary line that presumes families above 60% of AMI have no affordability problems.  But, in a fairly high-cost, low-wage area like mine, many >60% families are cost-burdened and a paycheck away from homelessness.

I applaud advocates serving all populations. There are no villains among us. And, I refuse to acquiesce to the idea of rationing assistance. Our Nation has the responsibility (and the ability) to address housing needs at all levels. A system that forces people into poverty in order to secure basic needs is a failure. We can no longer be satisfied scrambling for crumbs tossed from the table.  The more noble battle is to work on getting a larger piece of the pie - for everyone. Part of that battle is telling our story (and we have a great story) in a way that is accessible and compelling.  Again, much of our current language needs to be retired.  Thank you for starting this conversation.

p.s. If anyone must throw tomatoes, please make sure they are ripe.  The green ones hurt…  smile

Casius Pealer
14 Oct 14, 12:18 pm

Excellent point, Miriam, and well-stated. The first step perhaps is to simply be aware of the use of this term and to start a conversation around it whenever you hear someone use it. “Oh, you mean housing for people earning 80% of AMI?” for example. So long as you can make the point that lots of people are working but making much less, I think you’ve already started to change the conversation.

I don’t think we need to agree on the single right replacement term, so much as we need to push back with local statistics and clarity about the not-so-subtle implications of the “workforce housing” term. Thanks for leading this discussion.

Barbara Hamaker
14 Oct 14, 12:20 pm

I work for an affordable housing developer whose buildings are usually for low-to low-low income populations.  All of the insider terms that define populations (related to the funding we are able to get that is geared toward that population) is gobble-d-gook to the average person.  Even percentages of AMI don’t mean much outside our field.  What average person even knows what the AMI is (not only WHAT it is, but the DEFINITION of what it is?

Many thanks for the thoughtful comments here.  I’ll just add a few of my own…The term workforce housing at least attempts to put a face on those who need subsidized housing.  Usually affordable housing is generally thought of (if anyone in the general population even thinks about them) either for people who look homeless, or are on welfare (AKA people of color).  How many people actually think about where the people who teach their children have to live? 

The point is we need to put our energies on finding ways to put a face on the populations we serve, with or without their “job descriptions”, so that America has a better grasp of the stratification of our society, and the “wage ceiling” descriptions that define us inadequately.  Stereotypes have always been what we are programmed to use to categorize people, both good and bad, and then we don’t have to think about them any more—or if we do think about them, they are immediately defined according to our programmed ideas without thinking of them individually as living, breathing people.  Classified, categorized, done.

I would suggest all of you who care so much about our field come up with ways to talk about/describe Americans who need, for whatever reason, to live in subsidized housing—and what words can be used to talk about them so that people empathize, understand, and ultimately want to support their needs and help alleviate these deeply rooted problems in our culture.  So far our “short cut” categories haven’t done anyone much good except the grant-makers and those of us who develop the housing and have to write the grants.

Marketing geniuses take note:  If “Madison Avenue” (another stereotype) can come up with five dozen ways to describe toothpaste so they can become marketing millionaires—why can’t we figure this out and get on with it.

Mickey Flacks
14 Oct 14, 2:06 pm

I too have had qualms about the term—although people do usually understand it to mean “middle income” or nurses, teachers and cops. To make the distinction between low and middle income subsidized housing I have suggested (and it has been adopted locally) “big A Affordable” for heavily subsidized (low income) housing, and “small a affordable” for housing that is affordable to middle income folks—usually with smaller public subsidy. This distinction (Affordable vs. affordable) seems easy to understand and neutral in implication.

saundra raynor
14 Oct 14, 2:52 pm

Thanks for the excellent article.  But don’t forget clerical workers when you talk of people who need affordable housing.  It isn’t just teachers, cops, and nurses (although many of them earn $60,00 to $80,000 a year).  Think of the secretaries who can’t always afford to live near their work and have to commute two to four hours a day to serve their bosses.  The trend is to have fewer secretaries (their bosses are doing their own word processing, etc.).  In law firms, you often have one secretary for four or five lawyers.  Three decades ago it was one-on-one.  We are all working harder for less money and contending with higher commuting and housing costs.

Charlie Bernstein
16 Oct 14, 1:13 pm

Your article is good, and I don’t disagree with much. But I can’t say that I’m insulted by the idea that I live in workforce housing. No matter how you cut it, it seems to me that tthat’s what my neighborhood is.

For years, the employees of the Edwards Mill here in Augusta, Maine, lived on Sand Hill in one-, two-, three, six, and eight-family houses. The workers ranged from blue collar to low- and mid-ranking white collar.

The mill burned down a long time ago. Many of the old people here worked there. And many of their children and grandchildren are still here. The neighborhood has a lot of retirees, a lot of people on welfare, and lot of people with good jobs. About a tenth of our neighbors are psychiatrically labeled.

I’ve always understood the term workforce housing to mean places where working class people live. (Not can live or should live, but do live.) Working class includes both middle- and low-income people. (I’m using the singularly useful definition of “working class” used by Michael Zinzer in his “The Working Class Majority: America’s Best-kept Secret.)

What would you call the housing here? It’s not McMansions. It’s not a slum. It’s not the gold coast. It’s not a suburban development. It’s an old neighborhood that was built for working class people and continues to house us.

Why would I be insulted by that?

Judy Jacobson
21 Oct 14, 11:14 am

A great post by Miriam that’s sparked a lot of good commentary; I can’t help but weigh in.  The terms matter but what matters even more is the cause of the problem.  Without proper identification of the cause we can’t identify and rally around solutions.  Clearly we have a poverty problem in this country.  But in places like Massachusetts we also have extremely restrictive (and exclusionary) local land use rules. Most communities in eastern MA don’t allow any multifamily housing by right.  As a result, most of what gets built is large single-family homes that are unaffordable to all but the rich and that are chewing up our land.  It’s a mouthful, but I like to use the phrase “low-end market-rate housing.”  It makes me crazy when programs subsidizing folks at the median income or above are proposed.  We cannot subsidize our way out of the problem; there will never be enough money.  What we need to do is to change our restrictive land use rules so that apartments, townhomes, and small starter homes can be built, “unsubsidized” market homes, but not at the high end.  Homes for regular people.  Then we need to take the limited money we have and focus it on the folks that the market will never serve (homeless, disabled, ELI, etc.). I’m old enough that when I got into the business we talked about poor people and low-income.  I get that the terms have morphed to affordable, work-force, etc. to make solving the housing crisis more palatable to the mainstream.  But it hasn’t worked and, if anything, more and more of the money has moved away from the people most in need. We need to sharpen our strategies and our terminology!

Saundra Raynor
21 Oct 14, 11:48 am

I wasn’t aware that Massachusetts restricts residential building to single-family homes.  Every community needs apartments, not just for those who can’t afford homes but for those who don’t want them.  I can understand that your priority is to get those restrictions lifted - and as soon as possible.

Aaron Goodman
21 Oct 14, 4:49 pm

Workforce housing was housing built by larger corporations to house employee’s and families. In the 1940’s and 50’s Met Life philanthropically built Peter Cooper Stuy Town NYC, Park Fairfax, VA Park LaBrea in LA and Parkmerced in SF. These projects studied and developed improved housing for workers and families and returning WW2 vets. The profit margins were around 3%. In today’s real estate frenzy focused on BMR units, max profits, and pro-forma spreadsheets we lose any sense in the corporate need to be taxed, and to develop housing and transit and infrastructure. Why should Universities, and big firms like Apple and Google shy away and tax-evade instead of being forced to invest and build the cities of the future? Metropolitan Life had a plaque which sat on Peter Cooper Stuy town’s site, you can see it online on a blog. It justifies the reasoning for architects and developers, planners, banks, and builders to build for the commonality and the masses. In today’s profit hungry world, we need to invoke these ideas, and mandate changes in the political spectrum to reverse the ongoing displacement and gentrification in cities and communities across the country.  (Aaron Goodman SF, CA) Member of SF Tomorrow currently in court over the proposed demolition of Parkmerced for market rate rentals and for-sale units.

Charlie Bernstein
22 Oct 14, 10:30 am

Aaron G. -

Thanks! That’s the part I needed to know.


Sam Hillson
12 Jan 15, 6:21 pm

Workforce housing can mean different things in different situations.
In the oil fields, such as the Bakken and Eagle Ford Shale areas, workforce housing means the temporary living quarters brought in by companies such as Aries Residence Suites to relieve the local real estate market. 

I don’t see it as an insulting term.

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