Those two words seem to scare, anger, and confuse most people. Dunno why, though. It’s something every community needs, and precious few have enough of it. Affordable housing also isn’t really so much a specific government program (because lord knows we’re living in an era where, ever since one of our Grand Old political parties picked up a prion disease and started to see their brain dissolve into pudding, convincing themselves that Governmenting Is Bad) as it is a development goal to make sure that communities can have people of all sorts living there. The people who eat in restaurants AND the people who work there. The supermarket shoppers AND the supermarket workers. The Gym members and the gym workers.
Everyone needs to live reasonably close to their jobs. The people who sell you your coffee, deliver your newspaper, mow your yard, and help you live your upper middle class lifestyle don’t come from another dimension through a wormhole each day, returning to their tenement universe at night. Nope. They live in your town. If they get priced out of living there they’ll leave. And then the businesses you depend on won’t have employees. There’s more people who need affordable housing, too. People juggling school and work. Single parents. People in entry-level jobs.
People in government, too. I don’t know about Gloucester, but do you have any idea what a veteran parking enforcement agent (meter maid) makes? In Salem, after nearly 20 years, ours make about $44k. That’s also what an entry-level firefighter makes here. Make it to Lieutenant? We pay you $67k.
A new police patrolman isn’t paid as badly – they make about $54k. But that still doesn’t go too far in a world where rents for a 3-bedroom apartment go for between $1500 (one single listing on Realtor.com when I searched Gloucester today) and $2500 per month.
Your friendly local GOP will tell you that affordable apartments are all set aside for “illegals” or “them”, or “welfare queens”.
Affordable housing is for you. And a community that lacks it starts to die, from the inside out.
There’s a fiction out there that 30% of your gross income should be the guideline for what you pay in housing costs. So let’s look at that number, shall we?
Assume, for a moment, that you’re a firefighter that’s moved up a couple of grades. And you make $60k per year. Pretty good coin, right? So that means you should be able to afford $20k per year in rent or in mortgage+property taxes. That equals about $1660 per month in housing expenses.
First of all, looking at that Gloucester market (and I don’t know what you pay your firefighters, but it’s not going to be a lot more than Salem – if at all), when I ran the listing tonight there was ONE apartment rental of 3 or more bedrooms at that price. One. Now I’m sure there’s apartments that are on the market by word of mouth, or on Craigslist, or other channels. I’m not pretending that a single web search untapped an entire real estate market for me.
But that’s pretty slim pickings, however you look at it. Now assume the taxes paid on that salary (around $15k or so), and you’re looking at, after everything, perhaps $25k per year for that firefighter. Out of that he’s going to have to pay for a car, food, gas, clothing, and a whole life. If he’s married and has a child, that’s going to help pay for childraising as well. Sure, his wife probably works too – and out of those combined salaries you now have (probably) 2 cars, childcare, and a zillion other increased costs.
And there are people out there looking at this financial statement and saying “I WISH I HAD IT THIS GOOD!!!”
Think about that.
Buying a house? That’s even tougher. For a personal example, my wife and I earned, between us, about $100k back in 1993. We bought a single-family house in Salem that spring for $185k.
One Hundred Eighty-Five. Thousand. Dollars.
Today, it’s worth almost $600k on the open market. That’s a rough tripling in value. Did our salaries triple? Nope. Simply put, if we were in the market for a home today, we couldn’t easily buy our own home that we already have. Real estate prices have not followed the same inflationary curve that most consumer goods follow. If they did, our home would have a value around maybe $300k. High, but within reach. Instead, the $300k home needs a lot of work, may lack things like off-street parking, and is probably in a worse neighborhood. As crazy as rental prices are, home ownership is even tougher. Mortgages are relatively cheap nowadays, but a $320k mortgage will cost you (before taxes and, if you need it, PMI) about $1700 per month if you have amazing credit. Add your property taxes (mine are about $7200 per year – another $600 per month – so a home assessed for less might be half that, or $300 per month) and there’s $2000 per month or $24k per year to stay on the housing treadmill. Not including all the things you have to pay for when you’re a homeowner (repairs and the like).
It’s like a Red Queen scenario. You have to run faster and faster just to stay in the same place.
So part of the dilemma for Gloucester, Salem, and all sorts of other communities is how to serve these people. We need housing for our workforces. Only in a supply-side fever dream do we actually want a world where there’s a whole subservient underclass who can be shipped in and out of town daily.
Years ago, Massachusetts realized this. And they created the “40(b)” zoning law. To over-simplify horribly, it says this: communities should have at least 10% of their housing stock in the “affordable” category (and I won’t get into the exact way it’s measured – you can look it up). At last measurement, Salem was at about 14%, and Gloucester below 10%. What 40b does is give cities an incentive to place and approve projects with an affordable component – if that number is below 10%, a developer can buy a property, designate a certain portion of the project to be “affordable” by deed, and then bypass all sorts of local approvals and zoning restrictions that would otherwise apply.
In Salem, we’re above 10%. Our redevelopment is mostly concentrated around our old brownfields at this point, because we’ve filled just about all the rest of this city. And our boards have full powers over most of it.
You guys aren’t. The Fuller School is out there. So are a whole bunch of other open spaces in town. Just saying. Building market-rate housing will help affordability some, by increasing supply. But to really make a difference, you need to build the real deal. As a community, you can get serious about solving this yourselves, or you can try to raise up the bridges. But only one of Gloucester’s bridges is a drawbridge. The other one is fixed-span – and even though it’s under construction all the time, you can’t close it. So other people are likely to solve it for you. There’s money to be made in housing, after all.