A desperately short supply of affordable apartments in major U.S. cities has been overshadowed by coverage of the lack of affordable homes on the market. No longer. Efforts to draw attention to the apartment shortfall are starting to make headway.
The New American City is an urban template awash with redevelopment dollars--and it shows. Violent crime and urban poverty are at 20-year lows. Welfare rolls have been drastically trimmed. The one blot on the urban psyche in America is, unfortunately, the suddenly real specter of terrorism--and with it, possibly some second thoughts about living and working in densely populated, high-rise neighborhoods.
Whether the love affair with America's big cities will continue as it has, we don't know. But for the last few years the allure definitely has been there.
Consumers have been spending freely for the past few years, although that is tapering off with the United States on the cusp of a recession. Many believe the economy will right itself sometime next year, especially with the federal government preparing to spend billions to pull it back from the brink and the Federal Reserve cutting interest rates to levels not seen in decades. There is one constant in good times and bad, however: A surprisingly high number of America's working families can't find decent, safe housing they can afford to buy and, especially, rent.
And when they do find such housing, as much as half of a family's household income can disappear into mortgage payments or rent. Families also live in millions of housing units described by housing authorities as severely inadequate, whether they're owners or tenants, trapped in place by a spectacularly skewed imbalance in supply and demand.
Governments are not indifferent. A stream of government funding has been poured into housing. Thousands of imaginative minds have devised ingenious, practical measures, yet the lack of affordable housing is chronic and daunting.
Low- and very-low-income earners are obviously afflicted, but moderate- and middle-income earners, increasingly, find themselves in the same boat. U.S. Census Bureau figures released in February 2001 show the number of moderate-income families who needed affordable rental housing soared by 64 percent, from 433,000 to 711,000 families between 1997 and 1999. The issue is no longer just about the poor.
But that Census data was released nearly two years ago, and the situation has since worsened, given a dramatic drop in the production of affordable housing, natural population growth, immigration and the ingrained urge to live in a better place. The National Housing Conference, Washington, D.C., released a June 2000 study, Housing America's Working Families, which noted that four years ago some 13.7 million households with varying incomes--including 7.5 million renters--faced critical housing needs.
No Oscars for affordable housing
If there is a worst-case affordable rental housing scenario in America, it is likely the city of Los Angeles in particular and Southern California in general (see sidebar, "City of Angels--and Renters").
In its July 2000 report, In Short Supply, the Los Angeles Housing Crisis Task Force, Los Angeles, convened by the city council, noted the following statistics in the city:
* There are nearly 150,000 substandard apartments, and the city has a 39 percent homeownership rate--well below the national average of 67 percent.
* Fewer than one in five low-income families benefits from a housing subsidy-the second-lowest rate among metropolitan areas in the country.
* There are 153,000 families on a 10-year-long waiting list for federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Section 8 rental assistance.
* The population grew by 65,000 people, or 22,500 households, in 2000--yet fewer than 2,000 new apartments and houses, or one for every 11 families, were built. …