Waiting until the last minute to fix a problem can have consequences. When the problem is a lack of housing for American citizens, the consequences are dire.
Across the American continent in populated centers like New York, San Francisco and Boston, blue-collar citizens are struggling to find places to live. They’re left stranded by housing voucher programs that fail to deliver or that cannot place inhabitants because of a lack of vacancy.
In Puerto Rico, the crisis has manifested differently. Extreme weather has escalated a situation that was already bad, and with the lack of government aid stifling efforts to begin building again, the island territory could face prolonged issues.
We’re Not Building Like We Used To
Houses, that is. Sure, new developments are in the works every day, but examining the cost of entry for someone to rent or own these properties reveals an ugly truth. You’ve got to be somewhat successful in America these days to guarantee a decent roof over your head.
During the mid-2000s, construction of single-family homes was a staple item for urban areas. However, the focus has shifted away from these types of developments. Today, single-family homes are going up at about a quarter of the rate they were in the early 2000s.
Multi-tenant buildings can still offer viable solutions as entry-level housing, but the developments that are being built frequently price middle-class Americans out of the market. The result is that in places like Rochester, New York, there just aren’t enough places to live.
Climbing out of a Hole
The problem is that in places like Rochester, the cost to develop low-income housing isn’t covered by the equity that housing generates. The situation has gone untouched for too long now, and there are currently 700 families hoping for a bailout through a voucher program that closed over five years ago.
Righting the problem is going to require reforming the way that we approach new developments. In Rochester, the city staff is proposing new regulations that would mandate 20 percent of smaller housing projects to have units available at an affordable price for people earning 60 percent of the area median income or 10 percent accessible for people earning 50 percent of the median.
The new regulations also allocate five percent of $5.1 million in tax increment financing (TIF) for non-housing projects to be devoted to the development of new affordable housing for low-income residents, and creates a partnership with local developers to increase the number of single-family homes being built.
New developments such as these could then be made available through special exchanges that would make it easy for lower income citizens to find viable housing.
A Crisis in Puerto Rico
Without access to power and basic amenities, however, we can’t even begin to talk about TIF funding and affordable housing exchanges for inhabitants of Puerto Rico. Instead, what is needed is a rapid, short-term solution that can provide relief while the island’s people work to restore essential infrastructure.
Currently, tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans are living on or awaiting transport to the mainland United States because storm weather has destroyed their homes. Of course, the long-term solution has to be to rebuild permanent single and multi-family buildings on the island, but for that process to even begin, Puerto Ricans who’ve left the island need something to come back to.
A possible short-term solution would be the use of pre-fabricated buildings, which can quickly and cheaply be erected in areas damaged by the storm to provide people with basic shelter. Even in Florida where many of the 73,000 refugees have been put up, lingering damage from a devastating hurricane season serves as a constant reminder of the destruction back home.
Parts of a Larger Issue
To borrow a line from Olmsted County Housing Redevelopment Director Dave Dunn, the United States has to begin thinking about housing as infrastructure again in the same way we view our roads, sewers and power lines. Our current approach has turned homes into something like a commodity.
People need places to live, but greedy developers are taking advantage of popular markets like New York and California by marketing only to the rich. It might seem like capitalism at its finest, but there is a price to pay, and that is the well-being of the middle and lower classes.
Even if we don’t want to talk about it, the middle class still plays a vital role in keeping our country’s economy healthy. Without places to live, the everyday things Americans enjoy — fast food, stocked supermarkets and clean water — will become more expensive. The middle class is the lifeblood of our country, and we’re kicking them out the door.
Unfortunately, it took us until the last minute to acknowledge this issue. The truth is, things are likely to get worse before they get better, but it’s important that we keep talking about it and drawing attention to the issue, in hopes that “the powers that be” will listen.
Kate Harveston is a political commentator and blogger. She blogs at onlyslightlybiased.com
She is a regular contributor to ViewsWeek. She tweets at @KateHarvesto
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