Wrestling Again With the Affordability Issue

Does New Urbanism have anything to contribute to national efforts to develop better housing for the less affluent?

Affordability has been an issue "since the dawn of the planned community," Emily Talen of the University of Illinois commented as she introduced the session she moderated, one of two panels on the subject on the program Friday.

After doing a survey of a number of TNDs around the country and crunching some numbers to find out what share of the population could afford to live there, she found out that the answers were "a little alarming." She concluded, "New Urbanists are not building for all classes of people, not all income classes.

Eugenie Birch of the University of Pennsylvania presented other numbers to show that a large part of the problem is that housing generally has become terribly expensive to build. "Costs of new construction for housing do not lend themselves to affordability."

Elinor Bacon, president of E. R. Bacon Development and a former official in the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, made a strong pitch for the Hope VI program, which has help rehabilitate public housing, "opening up these huge swamps of cities." She called for political support for Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Maryland, the sponsor of the Hope VI renewal bill.

Robert Fishman had a somewhat different point of view: "I would say the housing crisis isn’t so much a housing crisis as an incomes crisis." As income inequality continues to intensify, the poorest 20 percent of the population has to get by on 3.2 percent of the national income, he noted.

"That’s why even with the tremendous work that HUD and Hope VI have done, the most important housing program has been the Earned Income Tax Credit."

In the early days of New Urbanism, when most builders didn't know how to do anything except automobile-based communities, even what he called "the 'Lexus class TNDs'" were important.

"But I think that role is a diminishing one." Builders and developers have learned the essentials of new urbanism. "A TND that doesn’t include affordability is a step in the wrong direction."

He also made a strong pitch for renewing of HUD's housing vouchers program, which at least helps preserve housing stock at the low end of the ladder. Others on the panel, however, questioned whether the vouchers "would produce the kind of housing New Urbanists would like to see."

One refrain from a number of speakers is that today's participatory planning is very different from the way things were done in the 1950s when faceless municipal bureaucrats would impose housing projects on the poor.

As Elinor Bacon put it, "It isn’t a batch of CNU-ers sitting in a room like this and saying let’s do this and this and this for poor people."

Housing is generally thought of as a "stable" good. But Eugenie Birch of the University of Pennsylvania pointed out, "Housing stock is mobile. It falls down the ladder." That is to say that today's state-of-the-art new dwellings will be overtaken by something even better and become the "affordable homes" of the future.

In the afternoon session on affordability, which was more practice-oriented, Andres Duany commented, "Bad design is the only known technique to keep housing affordable."

But Michael Pyotak, in a comment from the floor during the morning session, encouraged everyone to recognize "the political value of good design," including its demonstration value for what can be done to persuade people about what is possible in terms of affordability.

"Every good project at a local level is a billboard for changing public opinion."

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