Plugging the Leaky Bucket: It’s About Time

Posted by John Emmeus Davis on January 23, 2015

"A society grows great when old people plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in."

If that Greek proverb is true, what does it say about a society where most of our policies for affordable housing and community development look more like the mono-cropping of field corn than the patient cultivation of apples, pecans, and maples? We prefer stuff that grows fast, even when it requires more and more fertilizer to compensate for soils that are becoming depleted. We re-plant stuff again and again, staying one step ahead of acceptable losses from falling yields and unfavorable weather.

Similarly, as a society we don’t typically care whether the housing we build, the affordability we create, or the homeownership opportunities we have worked so hard to provide for low-income families actually last very long. We calmly accept our losses and repeatedly start all over again. Why plant a diversity of slow-growing trees when you can annually harvest a crop of sugar and starch that grows as high as an elephant’s eye through the constant application of public subsidies and private donations?

Both systems are profitable, but neither is sustainable—or just. They depend on scarce resources that are not easily replenished. They diminish and damage the communities of which they are a part. They deliver neither food security nor shelter security for vulnerable people of modest means. Indeed, when the affordability of housing is lost, when the condition of housing declines, or when foreclosures rise, it is vulnerable people who are pushed aside.

Displacement is not a sign the system isn’t working.  Displacement is the way the system is designed to work.

Building a more sustainable and equitable system of affordable housing doesn’t happen without more money. A climate of scarcity contributes to making most of what we build with public dollars and private donations susceptible to loss. We’re always skimping and hustling to get housing built that low-income people can afford to rent or buy today, addressing immediate needs. We’re always bribing Big Money with tax credits and such to invest in our projects, "feeding the horses to feed the sparrows," as Chester Hartman once put it.

But a lack of money isn’t the root of all evil when it comes to the unsustainability of what we produce. More money is hardly a fix when the vessel into which it is poured is broken. In many jurisdictions, no matter how many dollars are invested in affordable housing, the net impact on availability and affordability is negligible. As fast as money flows into the system, subsidizing production and consumption, dollars and homes gush out the bottom. Water doesn’t rise in a leaky bucket.

Some of this attrition is natural. Housing is a wasting asset, after all. But most of the leakage is planned, programmed, and even incentivized by many of the same policies and programs that are supposed to be solving our housing problems. Here’s a test:  randomly choose a half-dozen policies, programs, or plans at any level of government that are designed either to expand the supply of affordable housing or to reduce the cost to low-income families of renting or buying. I am willing to wager that at least two-thirds of those measures will favor housing that leaks over housing that lasts.   

Now take that image of a leaky bucket and turn it upside down. Or think of Richard Dreyfuss sculpting a muddy replica of Devil’s Tower in his living room in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. That’s the shape that best describes the net effect of many–if not most–housing programs in the United States. 

On the left slope, production climbs, units are added, and families are helped to cross the threshold into affordably priced homes.  With no controls over the loss of that housing, however, or flimsy controls that blow away after fifteen years or less, the supply of affordable housing produced by that program eventually hits a plateau and begins to slide down the other side. At a certain point, the angle of the two slopes becomes identical, with homes being lost at the same rate as homes being added. 

You improve that picture by plugging the leaks. If the horizon of your policies and programs is short, you do affordable housing one way. If your horizon is long, you do it another; namely, you make housing last for as long as possible for the people and communities for whom it was originally built.   

Longevity sets a table where sustainability and equity sit side by side. It’s a table with four legs. All are essential. A policy or program that incorporates only three, two, or one will wobble badly. Or, to return to my original metaphor, a bucket with a single hole may empty more slowly than one with several, but it still leaks.         

Affordability. There is leakage when subsidized housing, whether renter-occupied or owner-occupied, is allowed to revert to market pricing within a short period of time.  That hole is plugged when policies and programs give priority to projects with affordability that extends far into the future, including the operational affordability of costs that don’t dangerously burden the occupants and the transactional affordability of prices that don’t rise out of reach when housing changes hands. 

Durability. There is leakage when subsidized housing is constructed with little regard for how fast its condition may decline or how profligate its consumption of energy will be. That hole is plugged when policies and programs give less priority to upfront leveraging and more to long-term durability, livability, and efficiency, rewarding the developers of affordable housing for building it right and for maintaining it well.   

Security. There is leakage when low-income renters or homeowners lose hold of homes that public dollars and private donations have helped them to rent or to buy.  That hole is plugged when policies and programs give priority to preparing these households for success and supporting them if they falter, even to the point of standing between them and their bankers should foreclosure loom.  

Stewardship. There is leakage when contractual controls over the affordability, durability, and security of assisted housing are presumed to be “self-enforcing,” leaving doors unlocked and unattended in the night. That hole is plugged when policies and programs put an organizational watchdog in place and then help to defray the organization’s cost of staying in the picture for as long as the controls persist or the housing exists.    

It’s all about time, but how much time is long enough? There are programs that impose controls over the flipping of assisted housing that last only five years. There are programs that preserve affordability for ten years, then allow the owners of assisted housing to sell for whatever they can get and to pocket all the subsidies as well. There are programs that require 15 years of affordability, durability, and security. There are programs that regularly require 30 years or simply express a vague preference for housing that remains affordable “for as long as practicable.”

Whether planning housing or planting trees in whose shade I will never sit, even 30 years doesn’t seem long enough to me. I prefer to think of the fruits of our labors being enjoyed by the youngest children who are alive today long after we ourselves are gone, a principle once enshrined in common law as a “life in being plus twenty-one years.”

The good news, from my point of view, is that the day is passing when ephemeral controls over assisted rentals and nonexistent controls over the affordability, durability, and security of assisted homeownership are routinely accepted as “best practices.” Those who countenance the continued loss of affordable homes that a community’s resources have helped to create are actually forced, on occasion, to defend and to justify such a wasteful policy.

The bad news is that the leakers continue to hold sway in most jurisdictions, never mind that the Tea Party zealots have temporarily captured the Republican Party and would happily defund all housing programs and saw the bottom out of every bucket. A bigger problem is the number of more responsible policymakers and practitioners of all political persuasions who remain focused entirely on the rate of flow into the bucket and the chain of filtering down to the poor. They are unaware the bucket is leaking—or they don’t really care. 

But it’s about time they did. We will never find enough money. We will never build enough housing. We will never see the waters rise. Until we care as much about trickle out as we do about trickle down.

(Photo credit: Flickr user Tobias Schlitt, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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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