As we continue to plan the future of Raleigh, we must look at providing affordable housing as an ethical imperative and a multi-faceted design problem.
At a recent panel discussion involving affordable housing architects, providers and advocates, a full spectrum of design and planning issues that affect affordable housing in Raleigh was discussed, but one stood out as predominant – the value of multifamily housing built in central city locations near public transportation and services.
Affordable housing is generally defined as homes for individuals and families who cannot afford market rate in their communities and, specifically, as housing that costs less than 30 percent of a household’s gross income (including utilities and, for homeowners, taxes and insurance). Well-designed affordable housing is a perennial local and state need, with growing shortages of availability due to persistent income disparity and cuts in funding and subsidy programs, which dramatically worsened during the recent recession.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s “Housing Choice Voucher Program” has seen modest increases but at a time when rental rates have reached unprecedented highs. It is well-known that the availability of quality housing is out of reach for many North Carolinians. Equitable pay for folks who work on our behalf – teachers, nurses, policemen, firemen and service workers – is an essential issue, but housing that is economically accessible to them, as well as those affected by low or unemployment, is another.
In Wake County, there is a shortfall of over 25,000 affordable units. Over 45 percent of renter households are housing cost-burdened and consequently have less to spend on medical care, food and transportation. Most affordable housing in Wake County, including concentrations in Raleigh, is in locations inadequately served by public transportation and lack the density to support it. This results in increased transportation costs, which can constitute 25 percent of household expenses in Wake County.
The City of Raleigh’s “Scattered Site Policy” calls for dispersing affordable housing to mitigate concentrations of poverty and locating it close to public transportation. It is unclear how it can accomplish both. Alternately, mixed-income housing incorporated into the Central Business District or transit hubs promises a diversity of housing that serves more of the economic spectrum.
Strategically solving our affordable housing problem is an interrelated design challenge that includes land-use planning and transportation. At the conference, Michael Pyatok, one of the leading affordable housing architects in the country, outlined the benefits of higher density, what he terms “coziness,” including decreases in land and development costs and auto-dependence, and increases in the viability of public transit, local services and walkability. At approximately 3,000 people per acre, Raleigh is a relatively low-density city. But it will not be if the CBD continues to develop housing at the densities it is currently building.
If you total the housing built in the past five years and developments planned or under construction, the number of units in the Central Business District will double, but most are market rate. When Union Station is completed, it will be an important piece of increased public transportation. Consequently, there are substantial opportunities for including affordable housing that satisfies a full-range of affordability metrics.
There is clearly a strong market for affordable housing, and Raleigh’s 2030 Comprehensive Plan outlines some effective methods to fill it. We now need to comprehensively articulate, develop and apply them with an eye toward “cozy” housing patterns in the CBD and at transit hubs. Municipal land banking, including tax-delinquent properties, should be part of a focused plan for the CBD. Waiving impact fees and using tax-exempt bonds should be similarly tied to CBD and transit-based housing development. And, as expanded transit is planned, transit-oriented development should incorporate incentives provided by the U.S. Transportation Department, as part of a coordinated strategy to pair housing and transportation.
Raleigh’s “Scattered Site Policy” should be reviewed to remove impediments to locating affordable housing near what its residents need most: public transportation and services. Similarly, the N.C. Housing Finance Agency’s “Qualified Allocation Plan” should be reviewed to assess any unintended consequences of its provisions for awarding federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits. For example, one suitability metric is that affordable housing projects be in close proximity to a grocery store or pharmacy, a well-intended requirement but one that effectively eliminates many central city locations.
Any measure of a culture depends on how well it supports the full spectrum of its members. In this context, the provision of affordable housing is an ethical issue. It is also a design and planning one. As we continue to plan the future of Raleigh, let’s include housing for those who need it the most in locations where they need the most.
Thomas Barrie, AIA, is a professor of architecture at N.C. State University and director of the Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities Initiative at the College of Design.