One of the biggest obstacles to breaking the cycle of poverty is the lack of affordable housing. When housing is affordable, families are less likely to fall into homelessness, and families that are already experiencing homelessness have an easier path to acquiring permanent housing. Stable housing creates stronger outcomes for children, young adults, and adults in the home and is an instrumental tool in the fight against wealth inequality and poverty in America. And yet, states across this country struggle to provide access to affordable housing. Why?
Let’s start with the problem of definitions. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines an “affordable dwelling” as housing that a family can purchase for 30% or less of its yearly income. The first problem with this is that the definition, while well-intended, is a bit arbitrary. There is no easy way to apply a general threshold to a family’s economic situation, which can vary widely. For some families, 30% or less of income might not be particularly burdensome, but for others, a threshold at 20% or less would still be out of reach. The second problem is that cities vary in their local definitions, which can play a bigger role in a family’s life in regions where the majority of housing is managed by state or municipal authorities. Before a government authority even begins planning to construct affordable housing, they need to wrestle with this issue of deciding who is eligible.
The next problem is actually making housing more affordable. In many cities across the country, policies like rent control are often advocated as ways to put existing housing within reach of the families who need it most. However, in some situations, rent control fails to solve the most basic problem of affordable housing: a lack of houses. Without enough physical dwellings to accommodate those in need, even rent control will fail to fully address the problem, as families will compete for a limited supply. The question then becomes, how do we encourage cities to actually build more housing?
Zoning laws serve as an obstacle to the construction of new, affordable housing in many cities. Under Euclidean or form-based zoning codes, sections of land are set aside by a municipal authority for specific uses, whether that be agricultural, housing, industrial, or others. This practice can constrain the supply of housing that can be built if the municipal authority does not regularly reconsider these zones as the economy changes. Other kinds of regulations require the housing to have a set number of associated parking spaces, which can make the construction of high-density housing difficult or costly.
Affordable housing is a challenge, but one that we are prepared to meet if we push for change. Policies like upzoning, inclusionary zoning and public investment in affordable housing can all reshape the existing landscape in a community to provide affordable housing to those that need it most. If we want to break the cycle of poverty and eliminate homelessness, this is a place to start.