New eviction database highlights affordable housing challenges
Monday, April 16, 2018
Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes housing as necessary to establish "an adequate standard of living." Since the tech bubble burst in 2000, housing prices in the U.S. have been anything but adequate. Renters began experiencing eviction, homelessness and chronic underemployment in a tough economy, and the problem hit homeowners when the housing market officially crashed to start the Great Recession.
A look at a new, first-of-its-kind evictions database confirms that affordable housing remains an elusive human right for more and more Americans.
According to Princeton University Sociologist Matthew Desmond there were 2.3 million evictions in 2016. That’s one every four minutes! This shocking statistic is culled from Desmond's 2017 Pulitzer Prize winning research, "Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City," which documented links between evictions and chronic poverty in Milwaukee.
Now, together with other Princeton researchers, Desmond leads The Eviction Lab. It's the first database to follow housing evictions in 48 U.S. states and Washington, D.C. — drawing from 83 million eviction records.
Eviction Lab data, which covers 2000-2016, can be used for multiple purposes. Users can chart eviction patterns in their communities, make "custom maps, charts and reports," and use this material to campaign for more affordable housing. The applications are endless.
One application is the ability to show eviction rates in some of the largest U.S. cities. For example, the data shows that five Virginia cities are in the country's top 10 highest-evicting cities.
While the database uses are many, the need for more affordable housing remains an overall theme here. The "go to" solution for high eviction rates is building more affordable public housing; currently only 1 in 4 families with qualifying low incomes receive these public services.
Why is it so hard to build affordable housing, or remodel existing structures to meet lower income standards, when there's such a clear need? The answer is paradoxical: It's not affordable to build affordable housing.
Developers' and remodelers' affordable housing projects can quickly become mired in funding technicalities and local politics — it becomes largely about location. For example, lower income people need to be closer to public transportation, but larger swaths of land in city centers may remain inaccessible. If the project is smaller in scale, it won't qualify for federal tax credits.
These dilemmas compound to produce a frustrating stagnation.
Are there other ways of reducing building costs besides tax credits? Not really. It's difficult for developers to break even on affordable housing projects due to limited cost-reducing and revenue-raising options. They can either spend less on land, building materials and labor, or they can raising rents and look for alternative public financing outside of federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) channels.
These cost-reducing measures are not viable options. Labor and commodities markets regulate land, materials and labor costs, so individual developers can only reduce spending on those so much. And paying for building costs by raising rent defeats the entire purpose of an affordable housing project, doesn't it?
Desmond's eviction research also relates rising rent prices and evictions to other social problems like homelessness, substance abuse and rising crime rates. Lower income communities are reputed for having a higher police presence. This sets the stage for a predictable middle class home owning NIMBY ("Not in My Back Yard") attitude that fears property devaluation when real poverty threatens to move in next door.
Los Angeles notoriously struggles with increasing evictions and a related increasing homeless population — which is now 34,000 strong. A recent Los Angeles Times editorial sited that what was once overwhelming voter support to raise property taxes so $1.2 billion in homeless housing units could be built quickly turned into neighborhood resistance once real projects materialized.
Think about it. If one objecting LA business owner can stall a modest housing project for 24 homeless people — and that's what happened — you can imagine the uphill battle faced by larger affordable and supportive housing projects.
Affordable housing for low-income renters is not the same as supportive housing for the homeless. The former provides quality living space at affordable rates, while the latter also provides on-site job counseling and mental health services for tenants. Both remain in short supply nationally, resulting in the growing eviction rates captured by the Eviction Lab data.
Even when developers and contractors seek affordable and supportive housing projects, finding sensible funding and real "brick by brick" community support remain the largest obstacles in today's housing crisis.
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