By Gail Schechter in April 2013
The New York Times declared matter-of-factly in July 2012, “The suburbs were not designed for the poor.”
But in truth, the suburbs have not been bucolic retreats or bedroom communities to city jobs for more than a generation. It’s time for suburban governments to catch up with the times and accommodate a complex multi-generational, multi-ethnic, and multi-economic reality.
The suburbs cannot afford to cater their housing markets exclusively to the rich. Suburbs have been there and done that, incentivizing condos for “young professionals” and “empty nesters,” gated subdivisions, and Disneyland districts like the Glen in Glenview, subsidized heavily by tax dollars.
Today we see the result: vacant lots, the testimony of belly-up multi-million-dollar developments, home and condo foreclosures, and an astounding increase in the number of homeowners burdened by their housing payments – up from one in 11 in 1990 to nearly one in three today on the North Shore.
So the next time you hear a suburban mayor or candidate tell you that affordable housing is bad for the community, don’t believe it. It is bad only for those who want to maintain an illusory notion of the suburbs as an escape hatch from reality. But it is good for those who wish to live in diverse, welcoming and viable communities, rather than gated and sifted compounds.
An affordable housing set-aside in a multifamily development simply captures a small portion of units that would have been built anyway. This portion will rent or sell at a lower cost than “market price,” meaning that the developer’s profit will be a bit lower. This is often offset by a bonus, allowing the developer to build an extra market-price unit for every affordable one or otherwise increase the project density. No one loses.
In the meantime, affordable housing
- Allows families to stay together.
- Provides practical housing options for a wide range of individuals and families.
- Stabilizes the real estate market by diversifying the portfolio of housing choices.
- Boosts community continuity, neighborliness and livability by encouraging long-term residents to stay through multiple phases of life.
- Allows diversity to flourish, strengthening the social fabric.
- Eases traffic congestion, thus improving air quality and reducing noise.
Ultimately, a suburb that accommodates all income levels is a stronger, better and more decent place, more attuned to the existing community and resistant to housing bubbles. In the end, housing is not a commodity; it is a universal human need. To build the majority of suburban housing beyond the reach of the majority of the population is to privilege greed over all other considerations, and to set the stage for another real estate meltdown.
Gail Schechter is the executive director of Open Communities, based in Winnetka, IL, and was appointed by Governor Quinn to the State Housing Appeals Board, the enforcement body for the Affordable Housing Planning and Appeal Act.