Archived: Housing For All Needn’t Be So Painful


People need
A place to live;
It’s one gift,
That we can give.

Foreclosures are tough on families and tough on the economy. Thus the White House is bending over backwards to help people hang on. Our collective hearts go out to evicted families, at least those who owned homes. Yes, it’s true…we have more trouble sympathizing with evicted renters. They’re not losing their biggest investment, modest as that down payment may actually have been in yesterday’s subprime world.

In fact, we easily tend to ignore the reality that a third of all Americans rent. They always have. During the recent bubble, that percentage drifted down a notch, but it’s back up to normal now. And happily for some renters, they’re getting to move into empty condos and houses that developers and owners had wanted to sell, but can’t. Anyway, if the bulk of those foreclosures happened to people who couldn’t really afford a house and who were just being uppity by trying to buy in where they didn’t belong, well, who cares? Let them live in their proper station.

Which is to say, not my station. As we all know, renters don’t take care of their property, they overcrowd, they have bad habits, their kids ruin the schools, and often (shhhhh!) they don’t even look like us. And needless to say, they reduce property values, or they did when there were still any property values left to reduce. Now we must be careful lest they rent foreclosed houses from desperate banks, or worse yet, buy them.

Such are the hazards of an economic downturn. It foments social change, often in the schools, which can long outlast the recession itself.

But there’s worse. A bad economy means that governments, foundations and private donors all have less cash to put into social services. In housing, that translates into lower budgets for shelters, single-room occupancies (SROs) and supportive assistance. At the same time, this is the moment when marginal workers are being pushed over their margin and out into the abyss. Forget mortgages, many folks can’t even pay the rent. They flock to shelters, tents, and packing crates.

Of course, this all may just be a convenient test by the Lord to measure our personal qualities for getting into heaven. How do we deal with the least of our brethren? By and large, it isn’t pretty. If so many suburbs don’t even want apartments, how do you think they welcome the homeless? They’re about as popular as a nuclear waste dump.

Luckily, the problem is not that hard to cure. Rental units needn’t be in such short supply. All towns can promote mother-in-law (accessory) apartments to fit into single-family houses, with no family relationship required. That’s a great supplemental source of income for the host family and does no harm to the neighborhood.

Then how about forcing developers to add a second or third floor for apartments above their new retail and office projects? That also adds painlessly to the housing stock, and usually improves the architecture besides. Further, market-rate housing developers, if they ever reemerge, should be required to put a couple thousand bucks per unit into the coffers of a local non-profit developer. Then he can go out and build his own project. Office developers should have to pony up too.

And for those that are really down-and-out, who these days are heavily war veterans, the need is SRO units (rooming houses). These are typically carved out of old commercial buildings and architecturally enhanced for best results. Yes, counselors should be frequently available, along with a volunteer barber and a visiting nurse.

Broken down into such individual segments, the affordable housing shortage is not so overwhelming. All it takes is a community that wants to do something. That’s the hard part. The rest of the mechanics are fairly easy.

Columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut.

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