Anyone looking for a quick-and-dirty explanation for central Virginia’s lack of affordable housing could do worse than to turn to Page 5 of a new report on the topic. There you would find a chart showing trend lines for wages, income and housing costs since 2000. Housing costs have risen the highest, outpacing a slight increase in average wages. Median household income has actually fallen.
The report (commissioned by the Capital Region Collaborative, which is the offspring of the Richmond Regional Planning District Commission and the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce) draws attention to this disturbing fact: More than one-third of area households pay more than 30 percent of their income to keep a roof over their heads.
Affordable housing has been an issue since before the housing bubble really inflated, and it has remained an issue after the housing collapse — which suggests the issue is systemic. That in turn implies the need for systemic solutions.
Unfortunately, the report seems biased in favor of top-down solutions. It suggests creating a dedicated funding source for affordable housing as well as incentives for placing affordable housing near job centers; improving access to transit; preserving federally assisted housing; supporting employer-assisted housing programs; developing a community land trust; and strengthening advocacy coalitions. Only one recommendation takes a more organic approach: extending by-right development to mixed-use projects and “accessory dwelling units such as granny flats.”
Some of the suggestions (e.g., regarding transit) are excellent, and we don’t take issue with most of them. But they tackle symptoms, not diseases. For example, a primary cause of the transit shortage is overly restrictive zoning policies. Local governments have cordoned off huge sectors of real estate for single purposes.
As we noted in our 2014 editorial series on creating a Dynamic Dominion, it was once quite common for people to live within walking distance of their jobs. Granted, few people want to live next to a slaughterhouse today, and zoning decisions often are driven by public sentiment. Yet artificially carving up geographic regions into uni-purpose cantons does not reflect the way people actually live.
By the same token, localities should do all they can to reduce or eliminate minimum-lot requirements for new homes. Those rules drive up housing costs both by tacking added costs onto the price of individual units, and by artificially lowering the supply of available housing throughout the region. The same holds true for overly restrictive occupancy rules that limit the number of people permitted in a residence.
Meanwhile, there is one solution for the affordable-housing dilemma that is simple, obvious, and widely ignored: Pay people more.
We were struck by this passage in the report’s section on employer-assisted housing programs: “Over the past two decades, businesses in Silicon Valley have complained of problems recruiting and training top talent because their employees could not afford to rent or buy homes. In response, community leaders partnered with locally headquartered companies to create the Housing Trust of Silicon Valley.”
The trust originally “focused on creating rental housing for large families, the elderly, and special-needs individuals.” Later it turned its attention to homeless prevention and affordable-housing construction. Only one of those tasks addresses the problem the trust was created to solve: Silicon Valley’s recruitment dilemma.
Yet why was that dilemma anyone’s problem to solve, except for Silicon Valley’s? To the extent the dilemma was created by local government policies, those policies should have been repealed. Any remaining disconnect between the price of basic necessities and Silicon Valley pay scales, however, is the tech companies’ responsibility. The rest of the community is not obliged to assume the financial burden so the companies can further inflate their profit margins.
Housing costs are just one half of the affordable-housing equation. The other half consists of wages and salaries. The most effective solutions will focus on both.