Breaking the Stigma: Understanding Affordable Housing

April is National Fair Housing Month, which aims to raise awareness of fair housing rights and increase efforts to end housing discrimination. This month we also celebrate the anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, which protects individuals from discrimination when getting a mortgage, renting or buying a home, and seeking housing assistance.

The concept of affordable housing is frequently misunderstood and stigmatized by misconceptions. To kick off Fair Housing Month, we’re diving into what affordable housing is and the factors that are propelling housing crises across the US.

Picture of a housing complex.
Three Types of Affordable Housing

Let’s start by exploring the key differences between three types of programs: subsidized rents, vouchers, and income-restricted rents.

  • Subsidized: Rents for subsidized housing units are directly tied to your income. Because you’ll pay a set percentage of your monthly income, subsidized housing is ideal for households with no or very low income. You can learn more about eligibility for subsidized housing here
  • Vouchers: Vouchers assist low-income individuals and families in renting apartments in the private market. Vouchers provide a certain amount of money to be put toward rent, and the renter pays the difference if the cost of the rent is more than the voucher. 
  • Income-restricted: Income-restricted rents are more complicated and are designated for tenants meeting certain criteria. Your household size and your income determine where you fall within the area median income (AMI). The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines and calculates different levels of AMI for geographic areas across the country by household size, and it’s used by housing programs across the country. The higher your AMI, the more rent you will pay. You pay the same amount each month, even if your income changes. By knowing your AMI, you can find out if you qualify for certain programs.

 

The Housing Shortage Continues

Despite the prevalence of these programs, the United States is facing an affordable housing crisis, and finding solutions to the housing crisis has never been more urgent. COVID-19 poses a particular threat to people experiencing housing insecurity. As residents lose their jobs and income streams, making on-time rent and mortgage payments has become nearly impossible. So, why aren’t we tackling the housing problem? Here are some of the barriers preventing us from tackling the crisis. 

  • Affordable housing policy favors homeowners over renters. Wealthy homeowners benefit the most from federal housing subsidies. They receive a federal income tax deduction for mortgage interest paid, which is the largest housing subsidy program in the U.S., as well as a similar deduction for property taxes paid. According to City Lab, the US spends more than four times as much on homeowner subsidies than it does on affordable housing.
  • Affordable housing is expensive to build. In addition to increases in both material and labor costs in recent years, the price of undeveloped land in and near urban areas has increased dramatically. With an increasing demand for housing, many developers are focusing on constructing luxury housing units where profit margins are higher. Contrary to its name, affordable housing isn’t affordable to develop.
  • Affordable housing has been a victim of NIMBYism. NIMBY – or “not in my backyard” – sentiments among residents and property owners has added to the fight against new construction and densification of neighborhoods. Boston University found that 85% of comments made at public meetings were in opposition of new housing development. Restrictive zoning codes are another effective tool that restrict construction or make it more expensive. The lack of housing supply benefits homeowners who tend to see their property values increase, but the restrictive practices hurt the local economy.

 

Debunking the Stigma of Affordable Housing 

When you think of “affordable housing,” what image comes to mind? For many, the picture isn’t a pretty one. Affordable housing often carries unwarranted social stigma that can have long-term negative impacts on the community and those who live there. The affordability crisis is bringing housing equity to the forefront of local and national discussions, creating an opportune time to dispel myths and address the stigma around affordable housing. Here are just some of the ways affordable housing benefits the surrounding community:

  • Health Outcomes: Where you live has tremendous impacts on your overall health.  Throughout the country, low-income children and adults suffer disproportionately from chronic health conditions. Affordable housing may improve health outcomes for residents by limiting exposure to hazards associated with substandard housing situations, improving overall neighborhood conditions, and reducing budgetary constraints that limit spending on quality nutrition and medical care. Research also shows that households burdened by housing costs are unable to spend necessary amounts on healthcare and nutrition. 
  • Education Outcomes: Children experiencing housing insecurity living in unsafe housing are more likely to have higher rates of absenteeism and change schools.  Access to affordable housing can tremendously impact education outcomes for residents, largely because it minimizes disruptions to children’s education. Poor housing conditions are associated with significant deficits in educational achievement. Residential mobility (frequency of moves) is an important factor to consider because it impacts both the students who are moving and their non-mobile classmates. Schools with highly mobile student populations often focus more on reviewing material rather than teaching new material, which results in achievement deficits for both the mobile and non-mobile students. More safe, affordable housing enables greater student stability and school performance
  • Job Outcomes: Nearly 11 million renters send more than half of their income on housing in 2018, and there are just 22 counties (out of more than 3,000 counties in the country) where a full-time minimum-wage worker can afford a one-bedroom apartment at fair-market rent. Access to safe and stable housing is the foundation for employment stability, yet a steady and good-paying job is often a prerequisite for having a safe and affordable place to life. Involuntary housing loss – by eviction, an unmanageable rent increase, or foreclosure – can both impair job performance and increase the chances of job loss. 

Throughout the month, the coUrbanize team will also spotlight affordable housing leaders and the important work that they are doing, which is important now more than ever.

– The coUrbanize Marketing Team