Lack of housing isn’t a problem just for large cities — the Seattles and San Franciscos of the country. It’s a problem here, too.
Decatur leaders have known for years that the city needs more rooftops, especially if it wants to compete with surrounding communities for residents moving to the area to work at new businesses and manufacturing facilities.
But it’s a problem that goes beyond middle class families searching for their starter home. It impacts residents of lesser means, too.
Currently, Decatur faces a shortage of low-income housing as fewer and fewer landlords are willing to accept Section 8 housing vouchers. The result is there are more potential tenants than there are available rental units. Between 500 and 600 people are currently on the Decatur Housing Authority’s wait list.
Typically, according to DHA officials, landlords are happy to participate in Section 8 because they are guaranteed a large percentage of their rent even if tenants are unable to pay their portion. But right now, the housing market is so tight, and there is so much unmet demand, landlords are willing to forego that guarantee for the prospect of charging higher rents for housing aimed at more affluent tenants.
“All of my clients — like my mom-and-pop single-family rentals that would be ideal for Section 8, or even my multifamily that’s been at an affordable rent level — they’re selling like crazy,” said Sarah Taggart, a Huntsville lawyer whose clients are almost exclusively landlords. “I have so many new-to-the-market landlords, out of state investors, management companies coming from other states, and they’re doing rehab of the units. They want to clear it out, put money into it and take advantage of the growing economy we have.”
Some, too, are turning their properties into Airbnb-style short-term rentals, which also takes up some of the housing stock that would otherwise be ideal for Section 8 rentals.
With opportunities abundant elsewhere there’s also less incentive for landlords to deal with the bureaucracy that comes with being part of a government program.
The result is people and families that could qualify for Section 8 housing are being left out in the cold — sometimes literally.
Unfortunately, there is no quick fix for the problem, and cities that have sought a quick fix have found their housing stock stagnate even more and housing prices continue to rise. That’s the West Coast approach: ban or restrict Airbnbs and control rents. The result is even less housing.
“(C)arping about ‘luxury development’ — or more accurately, any market-rate development — has emerged as the preferred angle for opposing housing construction. In the recent past, the typical (Not in My Back Yard) complaint was that new housing was too affordable, and thus a threat to ‘community character,’ a term loaded with racial baggage. Today’s NIMBYism, savvy to a changing political landscape, makes hay opposing new housing on the basis that it isn’t affordable enough,” observes Nolan Gray, a professional city planner and a housing researcher at UCLA, in a recent issue of The Atlantic.
There is only one real solution, and that’s creating more supply to meet the demand. Critics may contend that allowing more market-priced housing does nothing to help those less well off who need low-income and subsidized housing. Studies, however, have found differently.
According to a meta-study published this year by UCLA researchers, “researchers in the past two years have released six working papers on the impact of new market-rate development on neighborhood rents. Five find that market-rate housing makes nearby housing more affordable across the income distribution of rental units, and one finds mixed results.”
The consensus is simple: More housing means more affordable housing down the line. But to get there, that means communities must resist their NIMBY impulses and allow for more dense residential developments and for more apartments and rental properties.