The Danger of Middle-Income People Feeling the Affordability Crisis

Posted by Miriam Axel-Lute on October 4, 2016

The housing affordability crunch is being felt by ever more people. As this year's State of the Nation's Housing report found:

While the share of renters facing cost burdens has risen across all income groups, nationwide, burden rates for renters earning $30,000 to $45,000 per year actually increased more rapidly over the past decade than rates for those with lower incomes. This trend is particularly strong in high-cost metros. In the 10 highest-rent metros, renters with incomes between $45,000 and $75,000 per year have an average cost burden rate of 49 percent.

While housing instability isn't good for anyone, many of us were hoping there could be a substantial silver lining to this more broadly shared pain—that there would be broader understanding of the need to increase the affordable housing supply everywhere. We hoped that the cause would no longer be so easy to write off by a comfortably, affordably housed majority.

And there are some signs that is true. The most recent How Housing Matters poll on affordable housing showed strong acknowledgement of the problem and dramatic support for government action on it:

Nearly two-thirds of adults (63 percent) believe actions can be taken to solve housing affordability problems, and a significant majority (76 percent) believes it is very important (60 percent) or fairly important (16 percent) for their elected leaders in Washington to do so. The view that affordable housing should be a priority among policymakers is strong across the political spectrum—from most Democrats (88 percent say it is very/fairly important for leaders to act) to three-fourths of independents (75 percent) to a solid majority of Republicans (62 percent).

In recognition of this, states and localities have been stepping up even while the federal government's response is largely held hostage to an austerity mindset in Congress.

Unfortunately, a ballot proposition out of San Francisco shows us how this swell of interest could go very, very wrong—if it's used to co-opt, rather than increase, scarce affordable housing resources.

As Tim Redmond at 48 Hills describes:

Proposition U will not create a single new unit of housing. It merely expands the number of people who are eligible to apply for the same number of existing and future inclusionary housing units. Or more precisely, it expands eligibility of "middle income" people to chase after rental housing that had been presently reserved for lower-income people. And Proposition U is a one-way street: it does not enable lower-income households to apply for ownership units now reserved for middle-income households.

Redmond, rightly I would say, sees this as an intentional ploy by the real estate industry to weaken affordable housing provisions it has always hated, not a misguided but genuine attempt to help struggling middle-income renters.

The question is, will those who stand to benefit fall for this ploy, supporting a measure that might ease their pain at the expense of those worse off but won't improve the overall situation? Will we allow ourselves to be divided and thus conquered?

(Photo credit: Images Money, via flickr, CC BY 2.0)

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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