Current Problems with Government Funded Affordable Housing Programs

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This is my article from issue #6 of 2017 in Cupertino High School’s newspaper, The Prospector

When photographer Jacob Riis first published How the Other Life Lives in the late 19th century, middle and upper class families were exposed to the horrid living conditions within the New York City slums. Since then, the United States has looked to provide subsidized housing to those who face financial difficulties. In August of 2017, the California Association of Realtors released a report detailing that the median price of a single-family home rose to its highest level in a decade, $565,330. In the Bay Area alone, costs rose 10.2% to $856,200. Without a doubt, California currently faces a significant housing crisis. The solution to this problem from an economic standpoint is quite simple: increase the supply of houses, thus reducing the average cost of renting or purchasing a home. While at first glance affordable housing seems to be an elegant solution, it hurts communities in many unintended ways.

Added density of residential areas can make life substantially worse for those who already lived there due to increases in traffic and an added burden on utilities. Moreover, those who stand to gain from affordable housing are often economically disadvantaged. According to a 2013 Department of Housing and Urban Development report, the average annual income for a resident of a government housing unit is $13,730, and 68% of all residents are categorized as “Extremely Low Income.” Consequently, government housing concentrates poverty in small, isolated regions. Job opportunities for the poor and low-skilled workers near housing units quickly fill up, leading to diminished prospects for others. In the past, this phenomenon has led to crime and violence in government housing projects. In 2005, Researchers from the Urban Institute concluded that drug-related crime and shootings are especially prevalent in government housing projects.

Another consequence of government-mandated concentration of poverty is the flight of the upper middle class. Not only do more affluent spenders start to trickle out of communities once housing complexes they perceive to be ghettos begin construction, the businesses that cater to them also relocate. This reinforces the disparity in class that affordable housing aims to solve in the first place. The government cannot pay for the homeless population indefinitely, so the best option would lift them up, not take away their job opportunities and reify social segregation.

As the primary goal for California politicians when it comes to the housing crisis is to increase the supply of homes and decrease prices, those who paid millions of dollars for a house in an affluent region would lose money. The resulting anger has been channeled into the NIMBY movement, short for “Not in My Backyard,” which opposes the construction of housing. One local example in Cupertino is the revitalization of Vallco last year. It sought to construct many new homes for individuals who work in Cupertino but live significantly farther away. However, disapproval from Cupertino citizens prevented the Sand Hill Property Company from pursuing the Vallco transformation. These interests must be considered for a legislative solution to work in the long-term.

There are better methods available to fix the housing crisis plaguing California. Housing vouchers enable citizens to choose and lease houses while keeping the rent under 30% of their net income. These prevent poverty from being concentrated in one region by spreading out the poor population as it spreads people out. Another solution is called “scattered site housing.” This method “scatters” the development of homes around the city, thus reducing the chance of concentrated poverty and therefore crime. While citizens tend to favor this method, the problem of increased traffic persists.

Ultimately, California’s politicians need to return to the drawing board and devise a method that prevents the negative results of government housing in the past. The affordable housing crisis is an important issue to many people in a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds — now is the time for a real solution.