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Why Can’t I Afford to Live Here?

Housing has become expensive all over, at least if you want to be near a source of employment.

In some coastal areas, the cost of housing is ridiculous. Case in point: people in New York City will pay $1,800 for 98 square feet in a building where there is access to a kitchen, but otherwise just a room and bathroom, basically the size of a walk-in closet.

In other areas—like the rust belt Midwest and Great Lakes areas where the job opportunities are slimmer, there is shrinkage—more houses than takers. The same is true in Pittsburgh, which underwent a massive transformation from its industrial heyday, which after going into a long decline is now getting its footing back as an “eds and meds” corridor. But that’s attracting young graduates; not so much the middle class families that fled long ago. The result: 650,000 existing structures and only 350,000 people, according to 2008 numbers.

In these specific urban realities, the problem becomes getting rid of the glut of available dwellings—not to mention the aging infrastructure—which, if you include the fire and police and other services that maintain them all year after year, has become a burden on the taxpayers.

But in places where real estate markets are exploding, affordability is the critical issue. Prohibitive prices make it more difficult for people to move to places they prefer and harder for employers to find service workers and all the people who keep the high-priced urban areas humming.

Even in the Great Depression, it was possible to have enough square footage to house a family, often a multi-generational family, unless you were of course living in the Dust Bowl, which impacted America’s Southern Plains region. People who were lucky enough to own houses during this time took in boarders, and construction, if you had any money, was cheap.

For years it was possible to find housing that matched one’s income. The usual markers were size, age of the house or apartment, and location. “Drive till you qualify” became the watchword in the 1960s for folks who worked in the city and were looking for middle-class, suburban life. It is still is a reality, though the distances have become longer and the commutes more expensive. It began to change in the 1980s, with a brief setback with the crash of 1987.

The Recession of 2008 saw the first real deflation of the real estate market since 1929. But this time the recovery of new construction was slow and began in the high-end market. There was no real incentive to build lower- and middle-end housing as long as a developer could get a fast and good return on a McMansion.


In metro areas experiencing a resurgence of economic growth, the lack of housing for middle and lower income families is a stark reality. Seniors and soon-to-be retired folks on fixed incomes are also struggling to find affordable places to live. Add the younger people just starting out, trying to establish a household. Even the requirements for renting are daunting. First month’s rent, last month’s rent, and a month’s damage deposit can be quite a bit when the average apartment is close to $2000.

The government has moved into this issue, usually in a state-by-state way. Generally there’s been a move to limit affordable units to those with “qualifying” income. In other words, it’s not available if you have a decent income and simply want to live well within your means.

In Massachusetts, and with variations in other states in the Northeast, the basis for affordable housing programs is based on 80 percent of median income. So if the median area income (AMI) in the greater Boston area (according to most recent numbers) is $107,800, a family of four with an income of $81,100 or less would qualify for affordable housing. The state goal is for every town to have at least 10 percent affordable housing, but most fall short, [1] even when the law incentivizes it. As an inducement, developers of new projects are allowed to bypass town zoning laws if a) 25 percent of the proposed units are designated affordable, and b) the town currently has less than 10 percent affordability. This is certainly incentivizing because many townships in Massachusetts have restrictive zoning with low density or relatively large lot size requirements. The state also offers tax incentives [2] to developers who pursue new construction or significant upgrades to existing buildings, of which at least 80 percent of units are “market rate” or affordable housing.

Trailers, or mobile homes, can’t be counted [3] as a town’s affordable housing stock under current Massachusetts law. It doesn’t matter because in many towns in Massachusetts, trailer parks are zoned out because they are considered blight.

But in reality, trailers are market rate, affordable housing. The “trailer trash” stereotype might prevail in New England but it doesn’t in retirement areas in the southwest and Florida. Giving the trailer or mobile home a social facelift lies in designing better parks and the dwellings themselves. Some of the units designed in response to the hurricane Katrina disaster were a first step in using the cost efficiency of manufactured housing to bring in a kind of small, affordable housing in that could be used as an infill, as a small development along the lines of a pocket neighborhood, or even a larger development.

The popular Pocket Neighborhood style—small houses grouped together to provide a sense of community—can make very efficient use of land and appeals to people who want to be close to others, in a neighborhood. There is a real need for zoning to respond to this. I think there is a path for a new urbanist solution for this kind of layout.

But the real problem with the affordable housing today is the selection process for who gets it. I recently saw a 23-page application for a affordable housing rental. Anyone who is self-employed will find that gross income, not net income is counted. For example, in the application, it states that someone with a bicycle repair business who might buy parts, a bicycle chain, even a bike at wholesale to be sold at retail, must count the gross income with no deduction for expenses or parts.

The rental form concludes with the information that for a single person renting an apartment, the maximum income allowed is $54,000, but it also points out that the minimum you must make to qualify for the rent (about $1600 a month) is $50,000. All the applicants must be entered into a lottery and this whole process (except the lottery) must be repeated every year. But if your income changes, if your marital status changes, you may be forced to move.

There is a move among New Urbanists to look also at what codes do to force real costs of development up. Close study of all the complex state and federal restrictions shows that one of the cheapest forms of housing to develop is a four-unit, wood frame walk-up apartment. Without an elevator, and small enough, this two- or three-story building can meet Federal Fair Housing, ADA, and the International Building Code and still be efficient to develop and rent.

The cost impacts of going bigger, like adding elevators, or more expensive construction, is worth understanding if you want to build something that is rentable at a rate than can amortize a mortgage and still be affordable. This kind of building can also be added into all sorts of small infill sites. The logical developers of this kind of housing are small scale developers who can hold the properties and build a portfolio of buildings, maybe costing $500,000 to $1million to build, but bringing lasting value to a neighborhood and a way for small scale developers to build wealth.

Essentially this is downsizing the idea of development—incremental small development. This can also include mixed use, and live-work—apartments above the stores solutions.

This also brings back the traditional patterns of neighborhoods and small towns. What stops this from happening, this more naturally occurring affordability, is a combination of zoning, rigidity of existing regulations on affordability, and the complexity of the financing programs. Efforts on all of these fronts would go a long way towards easing the affordability problems in our growing metro-urban centers.

Sara Hines is an architect, developer, author and urbanist based in Massachusetts. She is currently working on a 40B affordable housing project. [email protected]

19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "Why Can’t I Afford to Live Here?"

#1 Comment By JeffK On October 12, 2018 @ 7:04 am

The answer to ‘Why can’t I live here’ is raw capitalism. The more money you have, the better you can afford to live where you want. And where everybody else wants to live.

I believe not much of it has to do with regulation overreach. Do away with all regulations, and people will pack into any available broom. After all broom closets are full another group will clamor for more broom closets.

Do you think you have a right to live someplace you can’t afford? New flash: You don’t. Get over yourself.

Many regulations exist because the people that own property in regulated areas vote for those regulations. They don’t want every square inch of land built out in order to cram additional people and cars into them. Don’t like it? Too bad. That’s capitalism baby.

Here’s some advice if you want to live in Manhattan. Find employment in some renaissance city. Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, etc. Buy an affordable home in a marginal neighborhood that is on the rise. Use sweat equity to paint, landscape, and repair it. Guess what, you will find out something amazing happens. It will go up in value! Then, rent it out, and do it again and again and again. I know a guy that owns 70 small rental houses in Altoona. He is a mill worker that is a multi-millionaire. He doesn’t put a penny into a 401K because ‘I don’t understand that stuff’.

Articles like this are just whining by elite wannabees. Build sweat equity in rental properties. Maybe in 30 years you will be able to afford Manhattan or San Diego. But I doubt it. If your children continue with your actions then maybe they will be able to afford it when they are in their 40’s.

Few people realize the power of family generational wealth and inheritance. Many that are successful today will be able to trace their success to their parents and grandparents wealth. They just don’t want to admit it. Like Trump.

And let’s not forget, in the 60’s many blacks were not able to own property, which for many whites was the stepping stone to advancement and prosperity in the US.

Tough to get ahead when you rent all your life. Get used to it, conservatives-without-means. This is what you vote for.

#2 Comment By JeffK On October 12, 2018 @ 7:08 am

“But the real problem with the affordable housing today is the selection process for who gets it.”

No, the real problem with affordable housing is there isn’t enough of it. See previous post.

Move to Cleveland or Detroit. Plenty of affordable housing there.

#3 Comment By Dan Green On October 12, 2018 @ 8:26 am

Developers and people with money, know where to invest, so they in turn can build buy and re-sell, driving prices up. No secret, young people with good paying jobs prefer city living, that doesn’t have to include owning a car, paying high car insurance , buying gasoline, and paying a car loan. Suburb commutes are a waste of ones life. Why does the author think more and more corporations relocate to core cities, or in the case of nerds, to Silicon Valley, where their employees want to live work and play.

#4 Comment By RS On October 12, 2018 @ 8:47 am

In NY, at least, certain affordable housing buildings are known to have management companies that “encourage” people to fudge their forms – at least, the “right” kind of people. I know plenty of people who make well above that amount, who live in these apartments.

#5 Comment By mrscracker On October 12, 2018 @ 9:18 am

“But in reality, trailers are market rate, affordable housing.”
I live next door to a couple of trailers & there are quite a few in our community. And we have a very nice, well managed trailer park down the road.People do the best they can with the income they’ve got.

Tornadoes & hurricanes can be pretty rough on trailers but they provide families a place to live until they can afford to build something better. I seen many folks add on permanent structures to mobile homes, too.

#6 Comment By Elena vasquez On October 12, 2018 @ 9:40 am

NYC is building lots of housing, but mostly for the luxury market. A report discovered that a third of these properties sit uninhabited for most of the year. The rich buy them only as places to park money. This only aggravates the problem since land is scarce. Others crowd in 20 people to a single family house.

#7 Comment By Stavros On October 12, 2018 @ 9:49 am

The three-unit wood walkup known as the Three Decker is still ubiquitous in urban New England and arose as the logical affordable housing stock for new working class immigrants and families drawn to the jobs in the industrializing cities. These buildings are still very popular as I can attest since I own one. Indeed, many developers are building new versions of these 120-year old designs in Boston and elsewhere as happened on my street. They use most of the lot space, have broad porches for outdoor use, and create a sense of community and solidarity in neighborhoods without the looming mass of high rises. For houses built after about 1920 , developers placed narrow driveways on the remaining lot space and new constructions now feature basement garages on the first floors. They provide good use of valuable urban land while keeping a good balance among density, mass and livability. Notwithstanding all these advantages, they were viewed as a “plague” on cities when they first appeared around 1890. Streetcars brought the ability to commute; developers responded by building whole blocks of Triple Deckers on former farmland or estates; and the locals responded in outrage, demanding zoning controls and bans on the buildings to keep formerly bucolic places like Roxbury, Brookline and Cambridge pristine. These zoning battles were fought in the larger contexts of Irish vs Yankees, immigrants vs Natives, wealthy vs working classes. The sheer growth of Northeastern cities overwhelmed opposition and by 1930, Three Deckers were common in every town and city. They are still there, still popular, still a perfect New Urbanist solution to old urbanist problems.

#8 Comment By JonW On October 12, 2018 @ 10:13 am

Thank you for addressing the economics behind urban development. At one time, houses were held by families as intergenerational developments and a guarantee against homelessness. They would build upward as the family grew. Today the home is regarded as the equivalent of a fungible good that is exchanged for money. The roots laid down by a family are deracinated through the movement of capital.

While sensible public policy with regard to zoning restrictions, subsidies, and equitable financing options need to be addressed, they merely serve as a band aid when the root of the problem is capitalism.

#9 Comment By Collin On October 12, 2018 @ 11:31 am

Living in California, the heart of affordability housing/rent crisis there is probably no bigger issue to deal with and unfortunately

1) In terms of zoning and regulation the issue lies with local governments not state (some of the problem) or federal (Hardly any here).

2) Democrat program are clunky rent control that fail over the long term and Republican plans allow local governments to act.

3) In California, the worst areas of regulation are the “Obama Republicans” that still have Reagan DNA in them.

4) In reality the local residents care about their housing price, but their primary concern is MORE TRAFFIC and increased taxes on them to deal with people. The pro-deregulation people don’t deal with this reality.

#10 Comment By Debts paid On October 12, 2018 @ 1:22 pm

I believe that ultimately The cost of housing is driven by the cost of land. Tear downs lots of 6,000 sq feet in my upper middle class suburb sell for $300,000. The house that is torn down is a 1950’s roughly 1,200 sq ft ranch that hasn’t been updated since 1950. At that price the developer has no choice but to build a McMansion. Cramming in a town home or apartment in a neighborhood of homes would be weird and out of place. Even if the lot were $100,000 the developer would still build a $350k house. The affordable housing of years past had one small bathroom, cheap finishes, no basement, a one car garage and no insulation. No one wants to live like that anyone. Maybe we all should but that’s a different topic.

#11 Comment By JeffK On October 12, 2018 @ 2:10 pm

@Collin says:
October 12, 2018 at 11:31 am

“In reality the local residents care about their housing price, but their primary concern is MORE TRAFFIC and increased taxes on them to deal with people. The pro-deregulation people don’t deal with this reality.”

Exactly. Once people buy their home they usually don’t want further development due to all the additional people and traffic. And it’s within their rights to elect people that vote that way.

The trouble is, at least in my community, the developers have local government officials in their pockets. They always manage to have the property rezoned after they buy it. I don’t know how they do it. But they always seem to have their way.

#12 Comment By JonF On October 12, 2018 @ 5:54 pm

Re: And it’s within their rights to elect people that vote that way.

Why? They do not own the land that would be built on.

#13 Comment By Jack Fuller On October 12, 2018 @ 6:11 pm

The demand is fueled by interlopers from south of the border, Asia and the Middle East who come here unable to pay their own way. They get preferential treatment for low income housing often at US Government expense which requires “prevailing rate” which is a euphemism for whatever the market will bear. That pushes poor Americans, (black folks) and citizens out and the back of the line.

#14 Comment By connecticut farmer On October 13, 2018 @ 9:49 am

There’s more affordable houses in the US of A than you think, Why, I know some of places in South Texas down by the shores of the beautiful Ree-o Gran-day where you can get a house for $20K.

‘Course you’ll have to wear cartridge belts while carrying a 9mm wherever you go–and that’s INSIDE the house.

Life’s full of trade-offs, huh?

#15 Comment By JeffK On October 14, 2018 @ 7:30 am

@JonF says:
October 12, 2018 at 5:54 pm

“Re: And it’s within their rights to elect people that vote that way.

Why? They do not own the land that would be built on.”

If the preponderance of voters prefer development, there will probably be development. If no, probably not.

Just the way it works in a democracy. It’s very similar to zoning. Some communities want it. Others not. Move to places that conform to how you want to live as a community.

#16 Comment By mrscracker On October 15, 2018 @ 10:52 am

You can buy a nice, vintage mobile home with attached car port in McAllen, TX for 20K but most other real estate’s higher.

I’m a little bit familiar with border towns. Things have gotten worse in the past few decades for sure. The Mexican side is certainly more dangerous. But I think border towns get more of a bad rap than they deserve.

From their website, McAllen TX looks like a pretty interesting place & worth a visit:

“The Real McAllen

In an effort to build political capital, border cities like McAllen have been unfairly branded as violent and unsafe, and it’s not just the residents who think so. Nancy Millar, vice president and director of Visit McAllen, insists that McAllen is one of the safest places to live and work.

“We were recently ranked the safest Texas city and No. 7 (for safety) in the entire country,” she says.

According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, the Rio Grande Valley is extremely safe, and McAllen is not only one of the safest cities in Texas, it has one of the lowest crime rates in the nation. Additionally, this past February in his State of the City address, Mayor Jim Darling shared that the city of McAllen had completed its eighth consecutive year of reduced crime, experiencing an overall 67 percent drop in criminal activity from 1995.”


#17 Comment By Bob Ernst On October 15, 2018 @ 3:55 pm

“This also brings back the traditional patterns of neighborhoods and small towns. What stops this from happening, this more naturally occurring affordability, is a combination of zoning, rigidity of existing regulations on affordability, and the complexity of the financing programs.

In her last paragraph (pasted above), Hines blows right past what she claims are the key reasons our cities and suburbs don’t have affordable housing. Her article fails entirely to address the persistent effects of the exclusionary zoning that was put in place by a thoroughly biased U.S. Supreme Court in Village of Euclid, Ohio v. Ambler Realty Co., 272 U.S. 365 (1926). Until America addresses that problem of regulatory animus against the poor and people of color, I’ll bet all efforts to do something positive about affordable housing will be too little, too late.

#18 Comment By Brian M On October 18, 2018 @ 7:55 pm

One caveat or caution: Those cheap four plexes are often bought as investments by “dentists from the nearest big city” and the like. They are NOT managed…not maintained…there is no tenant screening. Many of the worst pockets in my outer Bay Area suburb are the four plex cul de sacs. One became so bad, so dilapidated, so crime ridden that the city actually bought it out and demolished it.

#19 Comment By PubliusII On November 11, 2018 @ 6:02 pm

The first and essential step is move away from Deep Blue coastal cities.

In what coastal people, striving for the upper middle class, scorn as flyover land, you’ll find lots of large affordable houses, located in suburbs with good public schools — the kind of places where kids can grow up.