Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Affordable Housing – We Get to Carry Each other

Dateline: 10:07 pm December 18, 2021 Filed under:

(the following is a speech I gave as part of the Public Speaking Rock Stars course I took earlier this year at CBRE)

I find it funny that one of my favorite memories from my college years is about affordable housing. I was at the Jimmy Carter Work Project, in Berea, Kentucky, standing in the kitchen of a nearly finished new Habitat for Humanity house watching Lewis Coffey turn on his kitchen tap for the first time. I was one of 25 volunteers that arrived on a Monday to a concrete slab and we built a house in 5 days. The thing is, Habitat for Humanity does that all the time. What really hit home is that we would go away and this we his home, the first he ever owned.

Skip ahead to 2020 in Minneapolis, where I live, and my son’s baseball coach is putting together a practice in a COVID-truncated year. On the hill on either side of us in the park are tent encampments for homeless people. This isn’t unusual as the pandemic brought a profound homelessness situation to the fore with semi-permanent encampments popping up in parks and on city streets. With evictions on the rise this may only get worse.

Two facts are true about affordable housing. There is always more demand than supply. Market forces alone cannot make up for the shortage. One estimate shows a nationwide shortage of nearly 7 million homes, and that’s just for households under near or under the poverty line. There are millions more making a decent wage as teachers, firefighters, and the market isn’t providing enough housing for them either. All the hard work in the world doesn’t help when you don’t have enough saved to make a down payment on a home or afford rent in your city.

What can we do? Habitat for Humanity is an excellent but small part of the solution. The Low Income Housing Tax Credit has proven to be an excellent tool, boosting the housing industry, and it enjoys bipartisan support. But go back to the housing shortage of 7 million. The Low Income Housing Tax Credit has only added 3 million affordable housing units since the 1980s, so we need to do more. Market solutions like lower minimum lot sizes and eliminating single-family zoning are very worthy but aren’t guaranteed to create more affordable housing.

Remember, there is always more demand than supply. Market forces alone cannot make up for the shortage. We need to spend more money on affordable housing and we must get creative to do it. We need to double down on the LIHTC program, and Congress may achieve that this year. We also need to increase and expand the rental assistance program, vouchers, to cover more than the seven million people it serves now.

I hope this speech doesn’t come across as too political. This is personal. Affordable housing is an emergency. I quote the song One by U2 when I say “we get to carry each other.” This is about helping our fellow citizens have decent housing – like it or not we get to carry each other. Watching Lewis Coffey turn on his kitchen faucet for the first time wasn’t about building a house, it was about his family having a place to call home, which is something we all deserve.

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