By Boyce Thompson. The subject of our special report this month, workforce housing, strikes particularly close to home. The inability of rank-and-file workers -- retail clerks, nurses, janitors, and factory workers -- to afford housing not only threatens to curtail housing growth, it negatively affects your ability to hire and retain workers, who must live farther and farther away from main employment centers.
Think about the people working on your jobsite today. Government data show that the typical construction laborer made only $11.57 an hour in 2001, the last year for which data are available. You needed to earn closer to $14 an hour to afford the median two-bedroom apartment in this country. Unless a second person in the household works, construction workers often wind up living in substandard apartments.
Carpenters do a little better, at $16.09 an hour, but that works out to only about $33,500 a year. In most of the top 60 markets in 2001, that wasn't enough to qualify for a mortgage on a median-priced home of $156,000. You needed to earn $49,703 to qualify for a mortgage.
These are the people who lose out when communities pull up the gangplank and refuse to let builders develop low-cost, high-density housing. Fortunately, the political winds seem to be shifting slightly in favor of doing something about this pressing national problem.
The National Housing Conference, a Washington-based organization that has taken the lead on this issue, reports that even as the national homeownership rate increased from 1997 to 2001 working families fell farther behind. "We found a dramatic, 67 percent increase in the number of working families paying at least half their income for housing during that period," says Conrad Eagan, director of the group, speaking at a special round table convened by Builder magazine. The Conference estimates that 4.8 million working American families have critical housing needs; they either pay more than half their income for housing or live in substandard housing.
City officials increasingly realize that they can't attract new businesses unless the people who will work for these companies have a place to live nearby. Programs have been put in place in Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, Minneapolis, and even Maine to address the problem. The U.S. Conference of Mayors has been speaking out on the issue.
Some cities expedite reviews and permitting processes, or lower parking requirements, to reduce development costs. Others provide fee waivers or cash incentives. The New Homes for Chicago program offers a $10,000 subsidy for each home deemed affordable to moderate-income buyers, those who earn up to 120 percent of the median area income. Denver offers rebates of $5,000 to $10,000.
In Minneapolis and Santa Clara, Calif., employers contribute to funds that help finance affordable housing. Another common approach is to offer a density bonus to builders who allocate a certain percentage of production for workforce housing.
Government reports on this issue often fault builders for following the money and building housing for high-income buyers. They typically fail to mention that a growing list of government fees and requirements raise the cost of development to a point where that's the only type of housing that can be built. And they are predictably silent about the lack of political willpower to approve affordable projects in the face of any citizen opposition.
Do people who are gainfully employed in this country have a right to own a home? I'm too young to remember any guarantee like that. But I do think it's unfair to block housing developments that would serve the very people who keep this country running. Unfortunately, their voices are rarely heard in any debate over new housing development.