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When Is Affordable Housing Not About Affordable Housing?

I’ll get to the titular question in just a second.  I wanted to start off by congratulating the apartment industry on being right – the issue of affordable housing is important and deserves the public’s attention.

Through your tireless efforts, others have finally come around.  Yes, it may have taken them a couple decades, but people are finally talking about it.  Heck, even presidential candidates are talking about it. Granted, you can’t get any further removed from relevancy than to have the highest office of the land opining on a uniquely local issue.  But you know what?  It is elevating the issue. 

Appreciate the attention.  You earned it.  Because now you get to promote policies to fix what you have long been warning policymakers on the consequences of a sustained supply and demand imbalance.  There is no need to be smug and say, “I told you so,” because the human cost, the impact to people, is self-evident.

You’ve made it!  Now all you have to do is sit back and wait for the phone calls and emails from policymakers begging for your expertise…

It hasn’t happened, has it?

In fact, chances are you’ve not only seen policymakers ignore the history of failed housing policies, but ostensibly doubling down on them.

Rather than address the root problem, supply, you’ve seen them go the other way and attempt to regulate access to the limited stock of existing housing. Proposals that limit the ability to screen prospective residents, remove problem residents and manage rental rates are some of the ways that policymakers have chosen to be “seen” as addressing affordable housing.

In the title of the article I ask the simple question: When is affordable housing not about affordable housing?

The short answer is, when it doesn’t produce a single unit.  The long answer is, when you avoid doing the right thing for the politically expedient thing. 

Make no mistake, building housing is hard. It takes years to get something planned, approved and for the industry to get it built.  Often, the elected officials that approves the housing are long out of office by the time it is all said and done. 

That difficulty is multiplied when it is apartment housing.  NIMBY activism has not only hurt apartment numbers on a project-by-project basis, but in the long-range production as well.  This opposition ranges from orchestrated vocal protests designed to intimidate well-intentioned officials to subtle housing policies that deter the development of apartment housing.

Finally, it is not about affordable housing when all you want to do is check the proverbial box on an issue.  Proposals like rent control are political theater.  Never mind the fact that it has failed every place it has been attempted; that is immaterial to its primary purpose.  It is meant to be seen.  To satisfy the moment of outrage.  To say that you have done something without doing anything. 

Often, I have heard exasperated elected officials throw their hands up and say “we need to do something” as justification to onerous regulations.  That somehow it can’t get worse than it already is.

To that end, I leave you with an excerpt from the California Health and Safety Code, section 50003 (a).  As background, this language is meant to codify the importance of affordable housing to the health and well-being of its citizens.  

“…The Legislature finds and declares that… there exists within the urban and rural areas of the state a serious shortage of decent, safe, and sanitary housing which persons and families of low or moderate income, including the elderly and handicapped, can afford. This situation creates an absolute present and future shortage of supply in relation to demand, as expressed in terms of housing needs and aspirations, and also creates inflation in the cost of housing, by reason of its scarcity, which tends to decrease the relative affordability of the state's housing supply for all its residents.” 

That declaration was published in 1977.  It can be argued that since then, the state has done everything but build supply.

It can most definitely get worse. 

As always, let me know what you think.

Fred Tayco is the Director of External Affairs for the National Apartment Association.