Everything Else Falls Apart: Insights to Addressing the Housing Crisis

Posted on October 7, 2020


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“There is no state or county where a renter working full-time at minimum wage can afford a two-bedroom apartment.” – National Low Income Housing Coalition

Read that again. No state. No county. This is a problem. 

For Tarrant County, Texas, this means someone making minimum wage would have to work for a whopping 95 hours in order to afford a modest one-bedroom rental home at the fair market rent of $945 per month. Wondering what the rates are in your area? Look up your county here: Out of Reach 2020.

This complex challenge is not new. We’ve been grappling with it for generations, yet the lack of attainable housing was exacerbated, especially for households of color when (wait for it) COVID-19 hit in the spring. Lockdowns, business closures, lack of child care, job losses, mounting bills, and ultimately evictions and homelessness followed. Community resistance, hot housing markets, and high construction costs all continue to fuel the fire. Housing, as all things, is intertwined with everything else and will continue to remain a cornerstone. As Matthew Desmond says, “without stable shelter, everything else falls apart.”

So what, exactly, should we do?

Understand that housing shortages impact everyone. Close your eyes for a moment and think about your child’s favorite teacher, your go-to grocery store or restaurant, your pharmacist at your local pharmacy who knows you by name. What about the barista who is already making your coffee before you even order? Now imagine your child coming home from school to tell you that Mrs. Mack changed districts. Your Tuesday night dinner plans are forced to change. Your pharmacist leaves (and so does their knowledge of your health history). Your barista moves on. What if this happened because they were forced to move because they could no longer afford their home? However, it doesn’t stop there. The housing crisis is a problem for everyone – even wealthy homeowners

Change your language. “It doesn’t matter what you say, it matters what they hear.” Word choice is important and, unfortunately, many words in the housing industry get a bad rap. Consider saying “attainable” instead of “affordable.” Use “home” instead of “unit.” Say “development” instead of “project.” Modifying what you say can set the tone for an entirely different conversation.

Repurpose vacant buildings. Repvblik purchased a vacant Days Inn at a steep discount, completed a low-cost conversion, and kept rents low (starting at $495). And they did it without low-income housing tax credits. Repvblik founder Richard Ruban notes that the scale of the need is so large, there is plenty of room at the table for others (and it’s time to get to work).

Rethink zoning. When I first moved to the Dallas-Fort Worth area more than 10 years ago, I lived in a (probably illegal) converted garage apartment. My rent was $525 all bills paid. Fresh out of graduate school, I had a mountain of student loan debt and couldn’t afford much more. I was also rarely home spending most of my free time out and about. At the time, this was a perfect solution for me and when I moved a year later it became the perfect solution for someone else. Appropriate zoning for accessory dwellings, tiny homes, and other creative housing options should be part of these conversations. Going further into the zoning conversation, it is important to take note that “the legacy of [systemic] discrimination continues today, in exclusionary zoning practices that restrict where people can live by artificially constraining supply and keeping house prices and rents beyond the reach of many low-income households, who are disproportionately households of color,” a fact which warrants its own blog post.

Engage stakeholders in the process. Not only will you gain incredibly valuable insights when you co-create, you will also build empathy (and sympathy) as you continue to learn. Ask key questions and leave your assumptions aside. “Those closest to the problem are often closest to the solution.” Think about who your stakeholders are and why these issues matter to them.

Get to the root cause. Lack of attainable housing is not just about housing. It never has been. Rather, lack of attainable housing is an incredibly complex issue. The good news? Lots of entry points. Construction of new housing, eviction moratoriums, homelessness prevention, rental assistance, case management, and social programs are only part of the solution; advancing economic mobility, expanding equity and access, promoting education, early interventions, well-paying jobs, and associated multipliers are all essential to solving this puzzle, too. 

Know location matters. “Transportation costs are the second largest expenditure for a family, thus have a substantial influence on housing affordability.” Does Location Matter? Performance Analysis of the Affordable Housing Programs with Respect to Transportation Affordability in Dallas Fort Worth (DFW) Metropolis notes that 69% of assisted units in the Dallas-Fort Worth area are actually unaffordable in terms of transportation costs. As Ally Schweitzer writes, “When people can’t afford to live near jobs, they move somewhere cheaper and drive to work.” Not only does this add to transportation costs and make traffic worse, but it also has negative infrastructure and environmental impacts, one example where your triple bottom line comes into play.

Utilize smart design. As James Bartolacci writes, “New affordable housing models incorporate sustainable features that reduce the cost of construction maintenance, technologies that help empower residents and connect them to outside resources, and greater reverence for human scale and connection to the street.” One Community Housing Development Organization (CHDO) we work with uses solar panels, rainwater collection, native plants, and energy efficient appliances. Not only do these improvements reduce the carbon footprint of the development, but the monthly cost savings is passed down directly to the resident.

Cut through red tape. Think your processes are flawless? Would your development partners agree?  What does the construction manager think? The neighborhood? One day I received a call from a developer that was having significant trouble getting a permit through the Planning Department. So, I walked over to the Department in hopes of identifying a quick solution, only to find myself lost in the process. If I’m not able to navigate it internally, what makes me think our external partners will be able to do so? Co-designing process maps, asking questions, and eliminating any unnecessary steps can give you the power to cut through red tape.

Tell me what you want, what you really, really want. Negotiation is not a zero-sum game. Being upfront is incredibly important and sometimes those wants and needs may surprise you. Perhaps it isn’t simply about getting the deal done; perhaps it is about building the relationships along the way. Get the non-negotiables out in the open so you can dive into the creative workspace in between. 

Understand your toolbox – and then expand it. Tax increment financing (TIF). Public improvement districts (PID). Neighborhood empowerment zones (NEZ). Tax abatements. Sales tax rebates. Fee waivers. Economic development program agreements. Federal grant programs. Bonds. Land. Cold hard cash. The list goes on and on. It is important not only to understand the tools you have at your disposal, but how they could work in your particular case. What does your authorizing environment look like? What community and political obstacles might you face? What tools have you not used before? How could these tools work together to achieve your goals?  Looking for something completely different? Check out Fast Company’s 4 Radical Real Estate Ideas to Fix Our Broken Housing System.

Have the hard conversation. One of my fondest memories of having a hard conversation is nearly a decade old now. I remember visiting with one particular homeowners’ association about a proposed workforce housing development with our Department Director (now Assistant City Manager). At some point during the evening, we abandoned the carefully curated slide deck and opted for a conversation instead. One of the most basic human needs is the need to be heard and to be understood. What we found during those hard conversations was that there were many misconceptions about the proposal that had raised alarm throughout the community. My property value will go down! You’re bringing those people here! Crime will go up! We don’t want Section 8! We started to dig deeper into these concerns and questions, but we wouldn’t have been able to do that had we continued on our set course. Instead of steering away from the opposition, think about what you might be able to learn from them instead.

Recognize every community is different (and their needs are, too). After all, it is what makes them wonderful! Learn from your data, quantitative and qualitative. Understand where the gaps and obstacles are. Do not shy away from what you might find, rather look for key insights. Also keep in mind that what worked beautifully in one community may be more challenging to replicate in another or may not even be a good fit at all. In addition, remember that everyone takes in information differently; raw numbers may be the perfect way to convey a point to one person, while a personal story may be more impactful for someone else.

Perhaps most importantly, have the courage to change your mind. Would you stay in the same lane if you noticed a lane closure ahead? Probably not. You’d change lanes to keep moving forward. Normalize changing your mind when identifying new information. 

This Morning Buzz is not intended to give you all of the answers; housing is too much of a complex challenge for that. Rather, I hope to fuel a spark that may have dimmed, even if only for a moment. More often than not these ideas swirl around from blog posts to slide decks, but rarely have I found them to be in the same place. My hope is that you’ll find some connection here, not only in the ideas themselves, but also in this wonderful community. Addressing our housing challenges is of collective concern – and it is going to take all of us to solve it.

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