Durham News: Opinion

Bob Wilson: Next stop, affordable housing

“Affordable housing” is one of those phrases much beloved by the social engineering class, but like Jell-O the reality can be too slippery to grasp.

Still, let’s give Durham’s planners and politicos the Mt. Everest Award for trying. Their latest summit attempt is affordable housing near light-rail stations.

That is, the housing that will be there if the $1.8 billion line between Alston Avenue and UNC Hospitals is ever built. Right now, that’s a formidable if because the financing package is incomplete.

But assume that light rail comes here. Housing developers, never enthusiastic about government mandates setting aside units for affordable housing, could get more sugar on their strawberries with Durham’s first three-for-one builder’s bonus.

In planner-speak, that means developers could build three market-rate housing units for every one designated for affordable housing. That’s a pretty good deal, considering that the city and county governments want 15 percent of housing half a mile or less from a light-rail station reserved for lower-income residents.

That’s the maximum walking distance for someone without transport to and from a station. Dicey in bad weather, but not unreasonable.

What would be unreasonable in the minds of many is a proposed one-car parking space for residents in these new communities. Why not the customary two spaces? Because cutting out the other space helps down costs.

That concession would work against people living in the market-rate units, perhaps enough to discourage some young, upwardly mobile residents vital to the financial health of new housing communities.

The eternal problem with affordable housing isn’t the objective, which is eminently worthwhile, but with that old bugaboo, economics.

Affordable housing is affordable only because someone else’s money is paying for it. Usually, that subsidy comes from residents paying market-rate rents, which of course respond to the rising cost of new housing.

As staff writer Jim Wise noted recently, the experience of Charlotte and other cities with housing clusters around light-rail stations shows that property values (and thus taxes) can jump dramatically.

That’s the major reason for Durham’s interest in the three-for-one bonus: It dilutes the pain by coming closer to what the market would do if it were unfettered by government diktat.

What the market would not do, though is provide affordable housing as government defines it.

The benchmark for affordable housing near light rail, adopted by city and county governments in 2014, requires lower-income residents to earn 60 percent or less of area median income (AMI).

In 2014, the AMI for Durham County was $65,700. That’s an impressive figure, so high that a family of four seeking affordable housing could earn $39,420 a year and still qualify.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines affordable as rent or mortgage payments that don’t exceed 30 percent of household income.

Using AMI, that would be a maximum of $11,826 a year, or $985.50 a month in Durham.

Many lower-income households wouldn’t pay the maximum amount, but they would still get decent housing thanks to OPM – other people’s money. It’s been part of the social contract since the federal government got into the housing business in the 1930s, with decidedly mixed results.

It’s safe to say that Durham’s people want affordable housing for everyone, though like chasing a rainbow, no one ever reaches its end. The challenge is not the destination, but the journey.