The Fallacy of Affordable Housing

I never thought I would have a strong opinion about affordable housing, but I’ve been really surprised time and again to see people dismiss “affordable housing” in favour of “Affordable housing.” We live in a house where there is a mix of income levels and housing costs – sort of a “mixed-affordability” deal. Our most expensive accommodation is $2100/month; our cheapest is in a shared room with bunk beds, in the master bedroom of an opulent victorian mansion with about 4000 sqft of shared common space. We are in a central location in the city. Base rent for a bed this shared space is $650; food and utilities, which are shared amongst about 20 people, are about $350 in addition. So all told that is room and board in a downtown area of (one of) the most expensive cities in the world for $1000. It might leave something to be said for personal space, but what is lacks there it makes up in massive shared common space, huge kitchen, and a rich, vibrant community that is supportive, encouraging, and Up to Things in their lives.

We’ve had the unemployed, students, recent grads, startup founders, frugal travelers, struggling artists, and social experimenters live in this space. It is in constant demand. And yet I’m constantly told that this doesn’t qualify as “real” affordable housing. Why? Because people look at a bunch of mostly middle-class white kids and say, “They could figure it out if they really needed to,” or “you don’t look like you need affordable housing.”

By “real” I mean something that is recognized by the city as a positive contribution to the desperate need for affordable housing in the city. By “real” I mean something that city regulators wouldn’t laugh out of the room if we asked for subsidies or rebates to support creating more of this type of housing.

Let’s think about this for a second. We have a bunch of people with great promise, recently and well educated, well intentioned, in an ambitious and emotionally supportive environment. They want to start companies, explore new approaches to social systems, create jobs, work on the arts, and generally are prioritizing making the world a better and more interesting place instead of Just Getting a Job (TM).   This type of lower-case-a affordable housing supports a vibrant, dynamic, innovative, and most importantly, human city, where new projects and new businesses are getting off the ground, where people can focus on creativity over institutional jobs, and where real relationships and a shared understanding of struggle and ambition flourish.

Instead of supporting that kind of affordable housing, cities want to support the legitimate kind of capital-A affordable housing that pools all the under- and un-employed into a big building that is affordable precisely because it lacks qualities like aesthetics, community space, inspiration, or positive examples, and mostly just seems to keep poor people poor. But, it looks like affordable housing – and from a government standpoint, it can be easily built, easily implemented, and easily counted.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t have options for the most extreme cases, and I know many groups work very hard to give a roof to people who would otherwise be on the streets. But we seem to focus on this more visible type of affordable housing at the expense of more nuanced, longer term approaches to could lead to better, living cities. You can easily see where this type of policy leads by walking around San Francisco’s Mid-Market and Union Square areas: a strongly bimodal-income city where upper class technologists working for large institutions live in over priced housing, backed up against the subsidized capital-A Affordable ghetto full of the destitute, the junkies, and the alcoholics. A city where the creatives and innovators, the exact people we claim to celebrate and genuinely need, are moving to the East Bay and Las Vegas, creating a reinforcing feedback loop towards a polarized city where the only ones who could help have given up and moved elsewhere.

We need to support a greater diversity of approaches to affordable housing, and focus on culture creation and human relationships over numbers and institutional legibility.