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On December 9, 2019, the Partnership for Strong Communities hosted its fourth and final IForum of the 2019 series. The event, titled A Presentation by Alan Mallach: Understanding America's Multiple Affordable Housing Crises, provided a primer on the complexities of housing affordability across the United States. As Mallach writes in a recent Shelterforce article, "Being priced out of appreciating neighborhoods is not the housing affordability problem most Americans face. But they are facing one."
Mallach is an author and senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress. His latest book is titled The Divided City: Poverty and Prosperity in Urban America. The event featured an introduction by Jon Cabral of the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority, and a question-and-answer session moderated by Susan Thomas of the Melville Charitable Trust.
Mallach's presentation started with a refutation of common media narratives surrounding affordable housing. One common narrative is that America's housing markets are universally becoming unaffordable to middle-class residents. In the vast majority of markets, however, people making the median income can afford the cost of rent. Areas with high rental costs are restricted to the West Coast, the Northeast, and "ski country" (e.g. the Denver metro).
While metros like San Francisco, Seattle, and Boston continue to see their housing costs soar, metros in the South and Midwest are much more affordable to residents making median incomes. Across the spectrum of income, however, all metros are facing a housing crisis: The lack of rental housing available and affordable to the region's lowest-income residents.
To illustrate his point, Mallach used the example of a bungalow-style single-family house, ubiquitous throughout American communities. In Seattle, a house like this sells for around $715,000. In Coffeyville, KS, America's lowest-cost metro, it sells for less than $25,000. In a moderate-cost metro like St. Louis, it sells for $125,000.
Given the disparity in home prices, you would expect rents in Coffeyville to be more affordable than rents in Seattle. While that is true for middle-class renters, the proportion of lower-income renters paying over 50% of their income on housing is virtually identical.
In fact, the same is true in nearly every metro in America. Whether you're looking at San Francisco, Atlanta, or Cleveland, over 60% of rental households making less than $20,000 a year find themselves severely cost-burdened by housing. For low-income residents, the housing crisis goes beyond supply and demand. The issue is that the ambient cost of maintaining rental housing is too high for them to afford.
When dealing with the multiple layers of America's affordable housing crises, what policies can make an impact? First, Mallach recommends that towns and states take action to preserve their stock of small multifamily, or "missing middle" housing. This type of housing makes up a large proportion of housing that is affordable to lower-income residents in Connecticut. However, it is often quite a bit older than the general housing stock, and is in need of preservation or repair.
Second, public policy can encourage homeownership among lower-income residents, as well as training them to become small landlords in their communities -- Mallach refers to this as a "decentralized mom-and-pop industry." Doing so could boost local incomes, provide financial stability, and decrease absenteeism among landlords.
Ultimately, Mallach believes that the only solution to America's lack of affordable housing is to create a "national housing allowance program," administered by the federal government, to provide housing assistance to all who need it. Unlike programs like Medicaid or SNAP, current federal voucher programs do not provide housing assistance for everyone who qualifies for it. To end mass evictions and provide stable housing for all levels of income, Mallach argues, a significant federal investment is necessary.
After Mallach's presentation, Susan Thomas, incoming Executive Director of the Melville Charitable Trust, led a Q&A session with Alan Mallach, discussing themes of his presentation. Click here for the Partnership's livetweet thread from the event, which includes a full recap of the Q&A session.