Housing & Mortgage
How the Shortage of Affordable Housing Hurts Everyone
Soul-sucking commutes, stunted local economies, rising numbers of homeless people
Dreading a return to your long commute to the office? The traffic that chokes most urban areas is a consequence of a shortage of well-located housing, especially affordable units.
Wish the economy could be more vibrant and offer you greater opportunity? Experts have determined that U.S. growth over time would be far more rapid if there were sufficient housing built near the best job opportunities. Another affordable housing problem.
Horrified by the sight of fellow citizens in your city living without shelter? Consider this: Although the U.S. population of people who are homeless is an estimated 550,000, bigger than the city of Atlanta’s population:
Between 1955 and 2015, more than 1 million single-room occupancy housing units (SROs) in the U.S. were demolished or converted to other uses.
Between 1994 and 2020, the number of public housing units in the U.S. fell by nearly 400,000, to about 1 million.
With this context, it’s clear the shortage of affordable housing isn’t a problem only for people who are poor or lower-income, but one that worsens people’s quality of life, economic opportunity and the basic dignity of living for all.
In an earlier column, I explained how the local shortage of housing units may be the most important statistic to understand in making your own choice about buying or renting a home. Find that column here.
In this column, I hope to persuade you that being in favor of more housing being built — including if it brings multifamily and affordable units into your currently all single-family neighborhood — would be good for everyone, including you. In short, here’s why you should consider being a YIMBY (yes, in my backyard), instead of a NIMBY.
First, I’ll briefly elaborate on the assertions that opened this article.
Traffic: Besides people of means who choose to live far from their workplace, the longest commutes belong to lower-paid service workers who drive into central cities and wealthier neighborhoods from far away because that’s where more affordable housing exists. The roads would be clearer for all if these workers could live closer in.
Growth and opportunity: Researchers at the University of Chicago and University of California calculated that the economic growth rate in the U.S. could be a third higher if housing were available near the greatest opportunity, such as San Francisco’s tech industry. Pre-COVID (and hopefully post-), even in a strong economy there are 7 million or so job openings unfilled and an equal number of people searching for work. This mismatch drags on the economy, and a strategically increased supply of housing is chief among the solutions to this problem.
Homelessness: It’s typical, when we encounter a person who’s homeless to wonder what caused their misfortune and focus on the individual. But remember that homelessness is most pervasive in cities with housing shortages, such as New York and areas up and down the West Coast.
It wasn’t always this way. If you were a low-income American living in San Francisco at the turn of the 20th century, you might have lived in an SRO of one form or another — a room in a boarding house or a hotel. You might even have shared that room, switching out with other low-paid workers who needed a place to sleep during different times of the day or night. It would have been a little snug, and probably not all that clean, but it would have kept you off the street. For decades, SROs were a flexible, communal solution for workers who needed a roof over their heads. Common in New York, Boston and other large metropolitan centers, they gave migrant workers, day laborers, single folk and many others a safe place to sleep and call their own.
Between 1910 and 1980, one in 10 people in San Francisco lived in an affordable SRO. Nowadays, it’s more like one in 50, and “affordable” means paying as much as $1,000 for an 8x10 room with no bathroom or kitchen, if you’re lucky.
What can you do? Tell your elected officials, neighborhood groups and other civic organizations that you favor the building of more housing. Period. Zoning and permitting processes have slowed development and greatly reduced housing unit growth, such that it lags ominously behind population and job growth in many cities.
In California, single-family only zoning resulted in vast urban sprawl, as well as a housing deficit of almost 6%. Half of the state’s households cannot afford the cost of housing in their local market, according to analysis from McKinsey, while low income families are entirely priced out. In San José, where the median house cost exceeds $1 million, 94% of residential land is zoned for detached single-family homes. Minority communities have been pushed out, while teachers struggle to afford a home near their students.
California Senate Bill 50, which would have dramatically increased home building near mass transit and in neighborhoods zoned only for single-family homes, was defeated early this year.
In the Washington, D.C., area, for instance, about 6,000 affordable housing units have been built in the last four years. It’s a good start, but small potatoes compared to a total need of more than 350,000 units.
Housing shortages might give existing homeowners price protection by limiting supply, but as discussed above they also create horrible traffic, diminish local economies and lead to homelessness.
Imagine your city if it didn’t have to support the costs of a large population of people who are homeless, instead spending that money on services like schools, libraries, street cleaning — or simply holding down local taxes.