If you’re one of the millions who missed Part One, you can find it here.
A resident of Pittsburgh’s East End talked to me about her family’s housing history over the past several decades. (She preferred that I not use her name, so I’ll call her ‘Sarah.’) Now a mother and grandmother, Sarah has moved numerous times throughout her life, but never outside of the neighborhood of Garfield into which she was born. She, along with her mother and two sisters, all live within a few blocks of one another; her children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews have also stayed close. But that is starting to change.
Sarah works full-time, but still needs Section 8 housing vouchers to make ends meet. Four years ago her landlord stopped accepting them, and though relocating was difficult, she was fortunate to find an apartment owned by the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation. Her apartment is secure for now, but Sarah worries about what it would mean if she suddenly had to move again. “There’s nothing out there anymore.” she said. “You have to go out of the city.”
Her sister’s family was recently forced to relocate, and in the short time they had to sign a lease, nothing was available within city limits. They settled in the Borough of Wilkinsburg, where it’s now difficult for her sister to get to work, and for Sarah to visit her niece. Similarly, her grandson has lived in Penn Plaza for years, but due to the scheduled evictions of all tenants, his father has been searching for replacement housing, and Sarah suspects he will have to soon leave the city as well.
“Social networks are especially critical for low-income families,” said Bethany Davidson, Neighborhood Policy Director for the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group. Ms. Davidson described how traditional public housing, for all of its deficiencies, fostered those networks. But the dismantling of concentrated public housing developments also severed vital social connections that were hard to remake in newly constructed mixed-income communities. Pittsburgh’s surging real estate market is causing that fabric to unravel further.
“It’s not mixed income development that destroys informal social networks,” says Robert Damewood, an attorney with Regional Housing Legal Services, “it’s the way we go about it.” Noting that empowering residents and sustaining long-term affordability is often the goal of planners and elected officials, it’s frequently not the result. More common, says Damewood, is that long-term residents are forced to move while redevelopment takes place. “This generally destroys the social networks that those residents had developed, and decreases the likelihood that they will return to their original neighborhoods when the redevelopment has been completed.”
Most people have experienced needing to move abruptly at some point in their lives. Rick Swartz, the Executive Director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, noted, “For working class families, living near one another is critical. When a two-block walk to Grandma’s house turns into a forty-minute bus ride, it’s a problem, especially for kids.” This reality is either not understood or ignored in much of what’s written about affordable housing in the traditional media. When a family shares a car to lessen a financial burden, or when a furnace quits in the night, families in close proximity can rely one one another. The sudden displacement of any family member can turn this delicate balancing act on its head.
Sarah hopes she never has to leave this community that enables her to get to work easily, and allows for her family to share a vehicle, to walk to each others’ homes, and support each other in times of need. An unexpected move for any family member would impact all of them. The kids in Sarah’s extended family attend Fulton Elementary, Peabody Pre-school or Brightside Daycare, all of which are nearby. Being displaced, once or repeatedly, means adjusting to new schools, which can be treacherous for children, especially between neighborhoods or schools that have histories of conflict.
None of these things may happen. Or all of these things may happen.
Affordable Housing 101
Affordable housing is a difficult concept to grasp. Its complexity alone is a barrier to meaningful public dialogue about it, which is often marred by the notion that it’s all a handout in one form or another. Seldom is it presented alongside the alternative societal implications of denying individuals fair housing opportunities, such as homelessness for families with children. Seldom is it presented as right, instead of a privilege.
As a general rule, housing that is “affordable” does not exceed thirty percent of a family’s monthly household income, no matter how high that income may be. In this region, where the Area Median Income (AMI) is about $70,000, a family of four living at 30% AMI has a yearly household income of about $24,500. Housing subsidies allow for deductions (for dependents, people with disabilities, etc.), but their maximum affordable rent/mortgage would be about $613 per month. A family of the same size living at 100% AMI would have maximum housing costs of $1,750 and still be considered affordable. A family at 150% AMI with an annual income of $105,000 would have maximum housing costs of $2,625 per month.
Naturally, the difference is stark. Not accounting for income taxes, the household at 30% AMI would have a maximum of $1,387 for all other monthly expenses; at 150% AMI, there would be $6,125 remaining per month. The lower the income, the greater the pinch when housing exceeds thirty percent, as it leaves very little for daycare, bus fare or groceries.
To be precise, ‘affordable housing’ is different than housing that happens to be affordable. It’s housing that uses subsidy (towards its construction and/or monthly operating costs) to intentionally bring units within reach for low-income individuals, and to remain affordable for a predetermined period of time. The Housing Voucher Program, commonly known as Section 8, is funded by the Department of Urban Development (HUD), and is the most prevalent form of housing subsidy. Housing vouchers are distributed to help low-income people pay their rent. Generally, Section 8 voucher holders are required to pay one-third of their monthly income towards their rent – and this could mean ten dollars or hundreds of dollars – and the voucher covers the rest.
There are two basic types of housing vouchers: project-based and tenant-based. Project-based vouchers are attached to privately- or publicly-owned residential units. If a resident vacates the unit, the voucher automatically remains for the next tenant. Typically, this means long-term or permanent affordability for those units, which are nearly always found in distressed neighborhoods. What is generally called “public housing” is owned by a Housing Authority, and is another form of project-based housing vouchers.
Tenant-based housing vouchers belong to an individual, who can use it anywhere in the private rental market, provided that the owner accepts them. Most don’t, and those that do are usually in distressed neighborhoods. When a tenant moves, he or she takes the voucher with them. Unlike project-based housing vouchers, this type is unstable. If a local housing market improves (or for any other reason), a property owner may no longer accept vouchers and/or raise rents to whatever the market with bear. Later, when I discuss affordable housing shortages, privately-owned units that accept tenant-based vouchers are not counted as affordable housing. In reality, they are market-rate units masquerading as affordable units, and what necessitated Sarah’s move four years ago.
One key similarity between the two types is that there are multi-year long waiting lists for both.
Housing intended for households earning 50% AMI or less is intended for “Extremely Low-Income” families. In some cases, “deep subsidy” housing, aimed at 30% AMI, is set at a percentage of residents’ income, and can be adjusted if that income decreases.
Not all affordable housing involves Section 8 housing vouchers. It’s important to note that nearly all newly constructed (or substantially rehabbed) affordable housing is partially-funded with Low-income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC), which provide for those living at 60% AMI or less. Referred to as “shallow subsidy,” these units are set at a fixed rate that is usually guaranteed for thirty years. If the tenant’s income decreases, the rent remains the same; even with this subsidy, tenants in LIHTC units often pay more than 30% of their income towards rent. Because these funds are highly competitive and have limited application, this alone limits the quantity of such housing any metro area can create in any given year.
Section 8 is a frequently maligned program, and opponents often mix fact with fiction regarding individuals who rely upon vouchers. I’ve already described the value of vouchers for the renter, but what is often overlooked is the value for property owners and surrounding communities. Tenants with vouchers, many of whom are working people, are more likely to make rent each month. This provides stability. If households that are living on the edge cannot pay their rent, the property owner may have to initiate eviction. Housing vouchers don’t eliminate that risk, but reduce it considerably.
Equitable development is a strategy to revitalize distressed neighborhoods in a way that benefits all residents, business owners and others community stakeholders. There are many strategies to protect renters, including minimizing displacement where redevelopment occurs by building replacement housing prior to eviction. For homeowners, property tax relief, rehab grants and many other tools can help to keep people in their homes. Retail “set-asides” and rent rebates for locally-owned, neighborhood-serving businesses enable those owners to better compete with larger retailers in rapidly developing areas. Equitable development also speaks to public policy through methods such as inclusionary zoning regulations, which require developments of a certain size to include a percentage of affordable options.
There’s a lot more to it, but this should get us going. Thanks to those who patiently explained all of this to me.
Up next is an historical look at East Liberty’s relationship to Pittsburgh, in the context of other cities’ struggles with housing equity. Also addressed is the notion that Pittsburgh has an abundance of affordable housing.