Giving up entirely on the idea of homeownership as a path to wealth-building would essentially be saying that black Americans have just missed the boat on this one, and will have to remain behind forever. On the contrary, in the relatively few places where housing values finally do go up in mostly black neighborhoods, it represents—at least in part—a kind of justice: giving black homeowners the same access to financial gain that their white counterparts have enjoyed for the better part of a century.
Unfortunately, that gain also represents a loss for people, especially renters, who can’t afford to pay much more than they already do, and for whom artificially low prices in largely minority neighborhoods meant access to locations that they would not be able to afford in a normal market where race did not play such a major role in housing prices.
So how are these two conflicting ideas to be reconciled? Well, that’s the basic challenge of housing policy. Perhaps a start would be to acknowledge that there is, in fact, a tension here—that “protecting” or “promoting” property values is the same thing as “making housing more expensive.” It’s somewhat discouraging, for example, when community organizations claim that “affordability doesn’t mean housing values have to remain stagnant,” without acknowledging that if housing values aren’t stagnant—i.e., they’re growing—that means they’re also becoming less affordable.
But there is some hope. One thing that could help is robust production of housing that isn’t priced by the market, and therefore isn’t affected by rising market prices. That can be accomplished through public housing, privately-developed affordable housing with programs such as the low-income housing tax credit and housing vouchers. At the moment, few places produce non-market housing at anything close to a scale that would provide broad affordability, but there are encouraging examples: Portland, for instance, has created 2,300 units of affordable housing in its redeveloping Pearl District, adjacent to downtown, financed largely by taxes.
In many places, having a wide variety of housing types and sizes can also make room for people with a wide variety of incomes. My street in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago, for example, contains a handful of single-family homes, whose value at this point probably reaches into the six figures; expensive newer condo buildings; older multifamily buildings, some of which have large, luxuriously updated units, and others whose apartments are somewhat smaller, or have less up-to-date finishes; and a few single room occupancy buildings, with minimal accommodations. As a result, there is market-rate housing for everyone from upper-middle-class professionals to working-class immigrant families to low-income elderly adults. Of course, that sort of diversity is typical of a pre-zoning “illegal neighborhood”: A vanishingly small proportion of American neighborhoods allow that sort of mix to be created today, which is a large part of the problem. Making these kinds of neighborhoods more common might make America’s housing policy a little more cohesive and less contradictory.
This post appears courtesy of City Observatory.