Public Comment

"Affordable" Housing: Affordable for Who?

Steve Martinot
Friday February 28, 2020 - 03:46:00 PM

In cities undergoing gentrification, like Berkeley and Oakland, many communities form organizations that demand affordable housing to counter rising rent levels, and to end the displacement of low income community members that accompanies the process. A seeming battle emerges between city councils and developers. Developers wish to avoid including affordable housing units, which are not as profitable, and are willing to pay mitigation fees to do so. And cities invent “Below Market Rate” (BMR) schedules and "inclusionary" housing standards to create the appearance of promoting low income housing development. But the latter requires a building owner to agree to the discounts. And city councils refuse to set mitigation fees high enough to produce enough on-site affordable units.

In short, cities promise "affordable housing" units while allowing the juggernaut of gentrification to proceed. And the neighborhoods respond with a sardonic “Bronx cheer,” “Affordable? Affordable for who?” After all, market rate housing is already affordable for those who can afford it. 

Insofar as “Affordable for who?” becomes a slogan, it serves as a vocal battering ram to knock down the rhetorical assurances by cities that corporate control gentrification is not absolute. Among that slogan’s many meanings, it expresses outrage at the pretended concern by officials for a community, while they feed community interests to financial gluttony. It contains an unstated demand to end “business as usual” and include neighborhoods at the planning tables (more than mere "input" or “public comment”). It implies that “affordable housing” units should be affordable for those who live in the vicinity of the buildings to be constructed. That is, the neighborhoods themselves should be the yardstick by which new housing rates were to be measured, not an impersonal "market" in which prices and rents are out of control. As a slogan, it thus becomes a protest against the specter of impoverishment, a desperate recognition that those who have maxxed out their cards and only get a 3% raise where they are employed still face a doubling of rent and possible homelessness. 

It also recognizes, in its protest, that there is no recourse for low income people. The legal system is designed to protect property rather than human well-being. California, for instance, has outlawed rent control (the Costa-Hawkins Act), which allows landlord willfulness concerning rent levels, and against which those who are harmed by rent gouging, and thrown on the street, are helpless. Entire communities have been decimated by this process. It is responsible for reducing Berkeley’s black community to 25% of its former size in the last 20 years. The law has given developers the legal power to refuse low income units in the absence of state subsidies of their envisioned profit margins (the Palmer Decision). Because housing is productive of profit for an owner of the building, the law protects the "right" of a developer of multiunit apartment developments to get the same market return (profit) as other landlords. 

In the past, low income families were able to afford housing. The present situation is characterized by a predatory and impersonal economic system which functions like an impoverishment machine. Against that, because it focuses on prices and rents, the slogan appears weak. It is a cry in the wilderness for city officials to end their complicity with the predatory. It doesn’t call for communities to organize locally to create autonomous zoning (through overlays) of their neighborhoods in accord with their own local needs. 

In other words, as an expression, “Affordable for who?” sits suspended between two languages. Rent is stated in terms of price. That means the rental unit is a commodity. One purchases the unit for a time period (lease). But it is not like buying a cell phone, or a car. A housing unit slips away, back to an owner. Before it does, however, it serves as a means of production. It produces "residence" in a city and a state. Its center and focus is on humans who reside. The human is its other language. 

What is confusing is that developers make money from a tenant by setting a real human being in the unit to make it productive of "residence." Instead of being paid, however, like productive factory workers, the tenant pays the owner. Affordability refers to the price of a “housing commodity,” but the owner never relinquishes control over the unit. It becomes a funnel to the owner into which the resident, the producer of "residence," continually throws more money. 

Because of this inversion, an entire spectrum of people gets priced out of housing by gentrification. Many hold on, "affording" their housing by choosing whether to put food on the table or pay their electric bill. When the situation reaches crisis proportions, government produces a resolution (like BMR, or a density bonus, or mitigation fees) that leaves the source of the crisis intact. Thus, it creates a treadmill on which crisis and resolution cycle around to each other endlessly. And it uses its confusion of languages (commodity vs. people) to disguise its character as an impoverishment machine. 

Cities and developers deal with the economics of price – the price of construction, the price of labor, the price of borrowed money, etc. That forces residents, when they wish to speak to cities or developers, to use the language of price, and not the language of residence or production. The confusion of language is a political one. And hiding the operation of the impoverishment machine hides the relation between wealth, produced by the machine, and the victimization of the many from whom that wealth is taken. Wealth does not exist out of relationship. When one individual or corporation gets rich, it means others have gotten poorer. In preventing rent control, the government serves to fill the needs of that machine. It also does this with police racial profiling, employment offices, surveillance technologies, etc. 

If there is a politics of ownership language, then a neighborhood language of democracy must also eventually stand opposite.. After all, democracy insists that those affected by a policy should be the ones who make the policy that will affect them. For housing, this would mean a community participation not only in defining what is affordable for itself, but in having a place at the table where buildings are designed and prices are defined. Without that, one is left with corporate despotism. 


A change in the slogan  

In face of the fact that “Affordable for who?” doesn’t focus on low income families, many community activists have changed the slogan’s demand from “affordable housing” to “low income housing.” But there is a confusion in that as well. The expression “affordable housing” already refers to low (and very low) income people because it refers by definition to those who can’t afford market rate housing. In addition, to say “build low income housing” still speaks the language of price and of housing as a commodity (like a car or a cell phone). It asks the economic machine, in a vaguely pleading way, to “please bring the price down.” 

But there are several levels of low income (a defined by HUD using the Area Median Income as a standard of calibration). Low income is 50% to 80% of AMI. Very low income is below that. Berkeley claims its AMI is $99,000 a year. A family earning $65,000 a year (65% of AMI), and paying $2400 a month for rent, would be paying 43% of their income for rent (market rate for the apartment would be much higher for 2 bedrooms). A family earning $55,000 a year, also low income, in the same apartment would be paying 60% of their income. The first family is living in hardship. The second is outrageously on the edge of crisis. 

In other words, an apartment at any "affordable" low income level will still be unaffordable for tenants at lower income levels. The impoverishment machine is nothing if not discriminatory. It does not provide equity for human beings. “Low income housing” will discriminate against others who are at lower income. And finally, even if different affordability levels are defined so that different rents could be charged in each stratum of renters, these levels are imposed rather than determined by the people and neighborhoods assessing their own economic needs. 

Thus, to add “we need low income housing” to the slogan “affordability for who?” still does not respond to the inequities of “affordability.” Instead, it dilutes the power of rejection in the slogan by again giving credence to market dominance. 


Rent based on income  

If it is as a commodity that housing economics can exile families from their communities, then some alternative to reliance on “the market” has to be found. This suggests we need a different measure for "affordable," one that looks at it from the people side rather than the market side. The existence of an Area Median Income points us in a different direction. 

According to HUD, tenants should not have to pay more than 30% of their income for rent. Rent related to income would be a great equalizer between low and very low income tenants with respect to the same apartment. The rent would vary according to who rented the apartment, and go down if a family with less income moved in. 

Setting a standard like that would entail a complete shift of perspective on life itself. Housing would cease to be part of an impoverishment machine, and the market would be removed from its throne of sanctity. The production of residence for which housing would be the instrument would render housing a human activity rather than a submission to economic forces. . 

Two things would have to be changed in order for a system maximizing rent at 30% of income to be possible. The first is that, until those most in need of housing had been housed – namely, the homeless, those evicted by rent increases, and those with very low incomes – housing would be withheld from moderate and upper income people (the wealthy can always manage affordability for themselves). Those with money would still want to rent a lower rent unit. So priorities would have to be made clear. Those who do not face the stress of displacement and impoverishment that low income families do would have to wait for low income housing needs to be fulfilled first. 

A second problem arises because even an income-related rental system still exists in a commodity economy. The means of maintenance would be market oriented. One of the reasons laws were passed prohibiting “rent control” was that landlords claimed they could not maintain their property and still earn money from it if rents did not rise along with all other prices. This means that there would have to be subsidies for maintenance. But it is going to cost money if government is going to resolve the problem of homelessness, or displacement. Rather than put money into the treadmill of resolving a crisis and then facing the next crisis to be resolved, it would be wiser to put an end to the treadmill and simply guarantee housing maintenance for truly affordable housing. 

Clearly, this would be an earth-shaking shift in economic perspective. People would stop dying on the streets. Housing would truly be implemented as a human right. As long as housing is a commodity, survival itself cannot even be taken as a human right. Relating rent to income would mean an end to economic victimization. And the response to the question, “Affordable for who?” would be “affordable for all.” 


This marks a cultural transformation  

Relating "affordability" to income defines a cultural difference. Humans themselves become the focus of economic processes, rather than simply the actors in it. And this reveals the false (mythic) nature of market universality. One can only buy what one can afford. In relation to survivability, as evidenced by the existence of homeless communities, that universality is intolerable. It is as intolerable as “murder for hire.” No just society would fail to charge a person who hires a killer as an accessory to the crime. The social institution that allows death on its streets cannot hide behind universality. It is accessory to those deaths. Housing is a life and death matter. And relating rent to income would be a step toward removing housing from market universality to the self-determination of human rights. 

We see another example of this distinction in the term “sanctuary.” California has declared itself a sanctuary state, as have many cities within it. The term implies protection from danger, as well as refuge or shelter. It raises the analogous question, “sanctuary from what?” 

California provides sanctuary for immigrants, chiefly from Latin America, but also from Islamic countries. The term has been disparaged and twisted by the federal government, however. For Trump, sanctuary and refuge refers to people running from justice, and who therefore can be considered criminals. We know, however, that the immigrants from Mexico are here because US corporate control of Mexican commodity markets has impoverished Mexican farmers (e.g. by underselling corn). They come to the US to get jobs to send money back for their families. The federal government attempts to track them down and deport them back to their impoverished conditions. In response to the injustice of that, California gives them sanctuary from the federal government. Thus, the term contains a similar dual meaning. It means refuge from justice for the US government and its corporate marketing. And it means refuge from US government revictimization for those escaping their impoverished communities. A market oriented political power drives the corporate impoverishment machine, and a people-oriented culture seeks to provide escape from that government’s oppressiveness.