Dateline Stockbridge: There Is No Panacea For Building Affordable Or Workforce Housing
— From The Berkshire Eagle, by Carole Owens
“Today, if we want affordable housing in Stockbridge, we need an Affordable Housing Trust, government subsidies, and a housing production plan.”Stockbridge always had mixed housing; it occurred organically. Houses were built one at a time, all over town. There was lower-priced, medium-priced, and luxury housing on Sergeant Street, South Main, Yale Hill, even around the lake. Yup, on Stockbridge Bowl, there were two-bed, one-bath bungalows with sleeping porches. They were small houses on postage-stamp lots.
Then folks came in, bought everything up, and tore it down. Modest housing, duplexes, salt boxes, and bungalows were renovated or replaced with hippopotami on picnic blankets. Just like that, our modest housing stock was gone and the rebuilds were priced out of reach of most of us. Today, if we want affordable housing in Stockbridge, we need an Affordable Housing Trust, government subsidies, and a housing production plan.
It is an artificial superimposition of housing onto community. Under whatever housing production plan, affordable housing will be built all at once, all alike, all in one spot. When built at the same time, a problem is built in: Age and deterioration occur at the same time. The problem at Pine Woods is an example. Major repairs and replacements of boilers, roofs, siding, appliances, roadbeds, and more occur simultaneously. It is a built-in problem, and a very expensive one.
Building in one spot creates instant homogeneity, separating folks from one another by finances. It could appear to be marginalization—being made less important and less powerful—through a socially-engineered process. Nonetheless, some argue that we must create housing in this way because the marketplace has—and will continue to—price all but the wealthiest out of Stockbridge.
Essential workers—firefighters, police officers, municipal workers, teachers, nurses, and more—will have to commute from other towns. Quick responses to emergencies, a sense of belonging and neighborly familiarity will all be more difficult for town workers to achieve. However, it is argued, it must be done, or young families with children, first-time buyers, will be priced out along with essential workers. So, if it must be done, what can be done?
Government agencies—federal and state—must subsidize housing. The terms (subsidized housing and affordable housing) are synonymous. The housing is affordable because it is subsidized. The costs of land and construction force up the sale prices of homes. The government subsidizes the purchase price and makes it affordable. When workforce housing is differentiated from middle-income housing by limiting it to essential workers, there might be subsidies and assistance.
That leaves the forgotten middle. At the upper end, no help is needed; at the lower end, help is available. Where is there help for those who do not earn enough to afford Stockbridge housing but earn too much to qualify for assistance? An Affordable Housing Trust and a Community Preservation Committee could help them, but where do they get the money to do it?
Inclusionary zoning (IZ) is a policy that requires or encourages private developers to build some units at prices below market value within a development of more expensive houses. In the alternative, the developer can pay a fixed amount per unit (from 10 to 30 percent) not to build affordable housing. In exchange, the developer receives incentives such as density bonuses (ability to build more units than would otherwise be allowed), faster permitting, reduced permitting fees, greater height allowances, reduced parking requirements, tax breaks, and other exemptions. The Affordable Housing Trust receives the money paid in lieu of building less expensive units. The Trust can use that money to help purchase homes when other sources are not available.
IZ creates more income diversity in a given neighborhood, and less government spending. On the other hand, “below market prices” does not always mean affordable to everyone who needs housing. A unit that is affordable to someone making 50 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI) might not be affordable to a person making 30 percent AMI and might not meet the needs of a particular community. Also, IZ leverages the private market instead of public funding to increase the supply of affordable housing, and at the same time decreases the developer’s net profit—it may discourage building. Last and certainly not least, the government provides block grants for repairs. These grants and loans help folks pay for major repairs, such as a new roof. In so doing, these grants may help the family to remain in their home. The grants interrupt market forces: The family is not forced or tempted to sell, and so the home remains off market and modestly priced.
There are options for building affordable and workforce housing and even for helping the middle class, but none is a panacea. Each solution to social ills has side effects.
Gentrification is thought of as wealthier people moving to poorer neighborhoods and displace residents. It can also happen when housing production is planned for, say, workforce housing, thus displacing poorer households. Just because the goal is laudable does not mean there won’t be negative impacts.
Marginalization: All planned housing can create a bulk influx that marginalizes both the target householders and others. Many realize this and advocate for mixed housing being developed. And yet, all planned housing that creates a bulk influx marginalizes both the target householders and others. For example, as more children are introduced into public schools, there is a benefit in human and monetary resources. There is also a threshold at which those benefits turn into liabilities.
Finally, homelessness is the product of the housing market. As housing costs rise, more are displaced. As more land is built on, less land is available, and prices rise. It is unimportant if less land is available as a result of building luxury, work force, or affordable housing.
There are no perfect solutions. Flip the coin, make the choice, but look closer at both sides of that coin.