TWO STUDIES RELEASED BY THE NAHB IN December highlight the increasing lack of affordable housing throughout the country. The studies emphasize that it's more than a low-income problem: More workers earning moderate incomes are struggling to find housing within reach, too.
According to the results of a survey commissioned by the NAHB and Freddie Mac, affordable housing ranks highly among the concerns of households nationwide. Nationally, 43 percent of respondents described themselves as “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about affordable housing. Among working families surveyed—defined as those with jobs essential to a local community such as police officers and teachers—the availability of affordable housing ranked only behind affordable healthcare as a concern.
Also indicated in the survey results: While nine out of 10 households nationwide believe that workers should be able to live in the communities where they work, only about two-thirds of working families are able to do so. “There's a gap between what people want and reality,” says Cary Overmeyer, a research analyst for TNS NFO, the research firm that conducted the survey.
Overmeyer adds that 36 percent of the working families who are able to live in the community where they work spend more than 30 percent of their income—generally considered the affordable limit—on housing.
Those findings were echoed by a second NAHB study on housing affordability in the nation's 25 largest metropolitan areas, which revealed that “people holding important community infrastructure jobs—police officers, teachers, nurses—can afford homes in less than one-half of the local census tracts.” What's more, those affordable areas tend to be in the cities' urban cores and their far outlying areas, says David Crowe, the NAHB's senior vice president for federal regulatory and housing policy.
“It's not going to get better by itself. The market is not going to self-correct,” says Nicolas Retsinas, director of Harvard University's Joint Center on Housing Policy, reflecting on the study data and other findings at an NAHB symposium on workforce housing. “The solution is not to reverse our standards,” he adds. “The solution is to find the nexus between the economy and the housing market.”
The NAHB's focus on workforce housing comes at a time when local governments throughout the country are introducing new affordable housing initiatives.
Among those making recent headlines: Sacramento County, Calif., announced its first affordable housing program, which mandates that 15 percent of all new residential construction in the unincorporated parts of the county be set aside for low-income residents. The new rule puts a twist on traditional inclusionary zoning, which has been used with varying degrees of effectiveness in other parts of California, by allowing developers to build the low-income units themselves, to pay a $7,000 per-unit fee to support affordable housing, or to pay a lesser fee—$3,000 per unit—and dedicate entitled land upon which other builders, hired by the county, will construct the affordable units. “I like this model because, over the years, affordable housing advocates and builders said the problem was finding suitable land,” says Roger Dickinson, a member of the county board of supervisors who championed the regulation. He adds that it will also prevent affordable housing units from being clustered in the same section of the county.