Monday, November 17, 2008

Letter in the Inquirer

I had a letter printed in the Inquirer today about affordable housing. The editor shortened it because my original was too long. Below is the full letter I submitted:

To the Editor:

I was glad to see the Inquirer’s editorial (“Affordable Housing,” 11/12/2008), reminding us of the City’s efforts to implement inclusionary housing – that would require affordable housing units integrated in new market-rate developments. As the editorial reflects, this is a policy that most major cities have already adopted, and that is widely used across the board in several states (including New Jersey).

Philadelphia has many low-priced homes and apartments; however, they are predominantly clustered in very poor areas. Inclusionary housing makes sure that where new market-rate homes are being built, that a portion of the new homes are affordable. The result is that every neighborhood, no matter how upscale, maintains a pool of affordable units. Most American cities have recognized this kind of income integration as a critical goal.

However, it is important to remember that even the most successful inclusionary housing programs are not a silver bullet, and are not a replacement for public housing. In Philadelphia’s tenuous housing market, this would be an added cost to developers. It is an important program, but we need to implement it in a way that is legal and financially viable.

With inclusionary housing, developers must take a loss on the below-market units. For this reason, the courts have only found inclusionary housing to be legal when the City provides substantial developer incentives. Because the burden falls on the private sector, the affordable units cannot be priced too far below market. Thus, inclusionary housing has been much more effective at providing units priced for people of moderate income, than providing housing for the poor.

Inclusionary housing must be just one component of a larger strategy to provide affordable housing options in every neighborhood, at a variety of price points. Other tools at the City’s disposal include new tax credits for rental housing, and tax freezes or deferments for low-income homeowners.

The most significant tool, however, is increased funding for subsidized housing. The City’s resources are very limited here. We need more attention from Washington D.C. Unfortunately, the current presidential administration has been devastating for the Department of Housing and Urban Development and programs like Hope VI, that were effectively starting to make headway with new approaches for mixed-income housing development.

In this struggling economy we cannot put too much of the public burden on the private sector without true incentives to make affordable housing programs legal and viable. Philadelphia’s foray into inclusionary housing is a strong step that most major cities have already taken to ensure a range of housing price options in every neighborhood – creating a truly mixed-income and diverse urban landscape.

Gregory Heller

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