Monday, April 4, 2016

Universal Housing: How Deep is the Hole and Can Urbanism Fill It?

In recent posts (here and here), I’ve begun writing about universal housing, the concept of everyone having a safe and secure roof over their head.  My immediate destination was to be an assessment of how walkable urbanism can affect universal housing.

Initially, I described the housing idea as “affordable housing”.  It was a reasonable descriptor because the cost of housing is a key factor in determining whether folks have places to live.  But a reader correctly pointed out that affordable housing has a well-defined use for a particular range of housing and that my use of the term was potentially confusing.  I acknowledged his comment and adjusted my term to “universal housing”.

I’ve defined “universal housing” to be fully inclusive, covering the entire population from the ultra-rich living on estates to those reduced to sleeping in cars.  However, it’s evident that the challenges of universal housing occur almost exclusively in the lower demographic segments, the segments in which the housing options can be roughly described as homelessness, public housing, affordable housing, and work force housing.

As this is a blog about urbanism, not social justice, I’ll shy away from espousing a particular position on universal housing.  I’ll note that no one is hard-hearted enough to argue against universal housing, while also noting that there is a spectrum of positions that can be taken on the subject, from “Work harder so you can earn enough money to rent an apartment” to “We should provide apartments for all, with no questions asked, regardless of substance abuse or other life issues.”

I find that both extreme positions reflect fuzzy thinking.  I expect that a nuanced position along the spectrum will ultimately prove the best response.

With that recap, I’ll move onto to the questions of how large the housing deficit is and how walkable urbanism affects the challenge of providing universal housing.

As is often the case, the folks at City Lab have good data to offer.   Taking from a study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, they report that there isn’t a single state in the U.S. where sufficient housing is available to serve Extremely Low Income families, defined as 30 percent of local median income, without the families devoting more than 30 percent of their income to housing, thereby shorting other life priorities such as nutrition or education.

Admittedly, the 30 percent/30 percent standard is strict, with a great many families even at higher income levels devoting more than 30 percent of their income to housing, but the numbers are still uncomfortable.  Over the entire U.S., there are only 31 homes that meet this standard for every 100 families that fall into the income category.  For California, the number drops to 21 homes per 100 families.

To give a local scale, the 2015 median income for a Sonoma County family of four was $82,600.  Thirty percent of that income would be $24,800.  With the 30 percent cap on housing costs, the maximum that a family could pay for monthly rent would be $620.  I’m not surprised that very few Sonoma County homes meet that standard.

Of course, some will argue that the responsibility is on the family to work harder, but a family of four could easily include two children, a disabled adult, and another adult working full time at the minimum wage.  The annual family income would be $20,800, well below the $24,800 threshold.  So even gainfully employed folks can fall inside the Extremely Low Income standard.

Knowing that 79 percent of low-income families in California, and perhaps even more in the North Bay, can’t find housing that will meet standards of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, can walkable urbanism help?

To begin, although I’m a strong advocate for walkable urbanism, it can’t solve the challenge of universal housing.  Instead, that result would take a strong commitment at multiple levels of government, with public support.  It can be done, but it won’t be either simple or easy.

But walkable urbanism can make the problem easier to solve when and if we choose to do so.

In a walkable urban world, families can more reasonably live without an automobile, instead relying on walking, bicycling, and transit.  With the multitude of car ownership costs removed from the family budget, more than 30 percent can be dedicated to housing without shorting food, clothing, or education.  And as more income can be directed to housing, more options become affordable and more families find homes.

Also, homes can be smaller in a walkable urban setting.  It’s not necessary to provide places for children to study or for Sunday dinners with an extended family if a library and an affordable restaurant are downstairs or within short walks.  With square footage being a large determinant of housing costs, more low income families can find affordable homes when homes are smaller.

Some may now note that housing prices in walkable urban settings have been rising, which works against housing affordability.  Chris Leinberger of Smart Growth America has a great response.  He acknowledges that walkable urban settings are in demand because the financially strapped find them convenient and comfortable places to live and the well-to-do find them cool places to live.  Therefore, demand is outstripping supply and prices are rising.

To which Leinberger responds that the classical economic response is to build more walkable urban places, bringing demand back in line with supply and making those places again affordable.  I agree with Leinberger.  In fact, that is pretty much all that this blog is about.

So, walkable urbanism can’t provide universal housing but, if we implement it well, it can make the solution easier when we decide to take that step.

There are several more housing topics on which I want to touch, primarily on the topic of how federal policies sometimes inadvertently undermine both walkable urbanism and affordable housing.  But I’m going to put off those topics for a couple of weeks.

Instead, when I next write, I’ll look to the recently-passed April Fool’s Day for inspiration.  Urbanism doesn’t lend itself to pranks, but it can open the door to whimsy and quirkiness.  For the past twelve months, I’ve been saving links which I found whimsical or quirky.  I’ll begin sharing in my next post.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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