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Thought Leader Poverty & Equity Uncategorized

Affordable Housing…have you met the new neighbor?

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By S. Kelley Henderson, Chief Executive Officer, Action Ministries

The topic of Affordable Housing is what might be described as “trending” of late.  Numerous publications, social media platforms, and talking heads on the nightly news are parroting the obvious points. 

  • We have an affordable housing crisis!
  • We need more affordable housing! 

Yes…we do!  This month, we are digging deeper into the reality facing so many families in our state today.  In my last column, Affordable Housing?, the problem was framed from the perspective of people making tough decisions about where to spend limited resources toward basic needs for their family, along with the massive shortage of affordable units in the rental market. Last week you heard from John Berry of St Vincent de Paul of Georgia about how extended stay motels have become “de-facto” permanent housing for many segments of our population. With few available units, a cottage industry has formed to fill the need…at the expense of family well-being.

The market will generally adapt, creating “solutions” to problems such as lack of affordable units, but perhaps the vast majority of us would find raising children in motels as untenable for our community.  This problem is not new, and we have some history of attempts at addressing the demand for affordable housing. One such approach has been “mixed income developments.” Mixed income properties are exactly how they are described, a mixture of units that provide options for higher income and lower income tenant alike within the same community. As the public housing projects of the 1970s began to age into demolition, many communities embraced public/private partnership to launch mixed income properties.  These became very popular with rich incentives during the 1990s and early 2000s through HUD’s HOPE VI program and the Moving To Opportunity voucher program.

In a 2017 study by the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank, mixed income developments in Atlanta, Nashville, and Jacksonville were compared for effectiveness and also explored some of the practical barriers facing developers interested in these types of projects.  Researchers narrowed down the challenges facing affordable development; including land cost, disproportionate regulatory burden, and lack of effective coordination with government departments (p. 14). So…we want “you the private sector” to fix this, but you must pay more and put up with the headaches of dealing with bureaucracy to get a tax credit. Although many developers took the leap initially, roughly 27,000 tax credits on the first round of properties are set to expire in the Atlanta area alone between 2017-2027, with fewer takers for a second round (p. 6).

While many mixed-income programs offered similar relocation opportunities for families trying to escape poverty, a 2016 study by the NYU Furman Center measured the outcomes of some of these developments. Although tenant satisfaction was higher from those moving from traditional public housing projects, community integration was not happening. Average rates of poverty barely changed over the course of 10 years, leaving many researchers scratching their heads (The Dream Revisited, NYU, May 2016). If this was “the solution,” then why were families not finding the upward mobility it promised?

The key to understanding this may be in the not-so-easily-measured level of “social interaction.” Many of the mixed income plans of the last 20 years theorized that lower income families would interact with more affluent neighbors and in turn benefit from “stronger informal enforcement” of norms that would lead to lower crime and more opportunity. The Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank studied this at length in 2017, and surmised that “Many of the theorized benefits of living in a mixed-income

community for low-income families require more than just geographically proximate housing units.” In other words, assuming opportunity by osmosis was a fatal flaw in the planning (Atlanta Fed, Developing Inclusive Communities, June 2017, p. 8). 

Organizations like Action Ministries and St Vincent de Paul of Georgia face these dynamics each day. Together we serve thousands of families who are looking for opportunity only to face road block after road block on the path to wholeness. One way of addressing the challenges of mixed income communities rests in the word “community” itself. Finding opportunities to relate to people of different backgrounds…cultural, racial, socio-economic…is an important component to future success.  We can and probably will build 100,000 new mixed income units over the next few years. The money is there to make this happen, but if neighbors don’t relate we will be back at the table again in 20 years to talk about the next problem/solution theory. 

Neighborhood initiatives where people can serve together is one way of breaking down barriers.  In 2018 Action Ministries launched an initiative called “We Serve!” where communities could gather together in a volunteer event. Serving side by side for a common cause, ending child hunger.  We have witnessed about 5,000 new people in a diverse blend of color, culture, and context build new relationships as they load a pallet of hope together for their neighbors in need. Perhaps we can find common ground through service that supports opportunity for new neighbors into your community over the next few years. New people are coming, and the choice is ours welcome them as neighbors.

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