Once, during a review session on a development in another town, the developer described a project as “market affordable.” There was an effortless, swift feeling about the term, in how it glided over my preconceived ideas.
In this particular case, the developer used the words to describe housing that, while not subsidized, would be affordable because it was small: 1,000-1,300 square feet, starting in the low $200,000s. Market affordable: housing designed intentionally to meet a lower price point by restricting size or other features.
Now $200,000 may not seem accessible to you, but the developer earnestly meant it – familiar as he was with the very real need for working-class housing options. (I think this was probably intended to be housing for low-debt households of public servants with decent credit.)
Debate as we might – and did – the “affordable for whom?” question, and what range of housing options developers ought to provide for communities, the term “market affordable” has irked me ever since. Not just because in this example it is an inadequate solution for a much bigger existing need, but precisely because “market affordable” already does exist and is all around us. And it is worth more consideration.
Market affordable is technically available at all price points, handling the “for whom” question tidily. An easy answer would be “nearly everybody.” Anyone paying for unsubsidized housing and actually surviving is living in market affordable housing.
This “affordable housing” includes a size-restricted, newly built, $230,000 cottage. It also includes the 80-year-old duplex at $410 per month – closer to the range we typically consider in affordable housing discussions. And I think considering that lower-cost range of market housing would reveal a pragmatic gap in available housing: while affordable, it is so because of some bundle of features a consumer – consciously or not – has deselected from a menu.
Broadly, conditions making unsubsidized housing affordable to lower incomes are a) low construction costs, b) low maintenance costs, c) no owner debt, or d) a low-demand location.
That may mean a home a) with fewer high-end features and fewer square feet, b) deferred or low-cost maintenance, c) no owner mortgage loan-servicing each month, and/or c) located where jobs, safety or basic resources are less optimal. Market affordable: housing that meets a lower price point due to a variety of restrictions or lack of features.
What compromises do we make as renters living in “market affordable” housing? And what compromises do we make as property owners to make it available?
Many less meaningful compromises like laminate countertops instead of concrete or stone are entirely acceptable. Square footage starts to filter larger families. For older homes with greater maintenance needs, compromises can be more difficult to make, related to structural problems, or properly functioning systems.
As a property owner (renting from the bank) I know there is always a juggle between costs on one hand and how long my family can wait to fix the sink, stabilize the foundation, or install ground fault circuit interrupters. But for a renter there is not the same personal agency involved when they subscribe to the schedule, standards and budget of their landlord who commits to maintenance. The priority an owner gives to saving money or investing in property could go in either direction, yielding both well-maintained and safe housing or housing that meets neither of those descriptions.
In short, as the tool box for guaranteeing quality affordable housing in Durham grows, it will be important to look closely at what our market affordable stock is and how we can preserve it where its compromises are working well and improve it where they aren’t.
John Killeen is a Durham resident and can be reached at email@example.com or @JohnPKilleen on Twitter.