Friday, January 22, 2010

Affordable Housing.

This past week has seen a huge uptick in stories regarding Affordable Housing.  I can't get into specifics like Bill Randell or Paul Collyer on the business side, but I can talk about the human side.  Jeremy Shulkin's article in Worcester Magazine lays out the main question for Worcester: Where do we go from here?

Mr. Shulkin states that an individual making less than $35,720 qualifies for affordable housing at a cap of $10,716 for rent or mortgage.  That equals $893 a month for the top end of the scale.  What happens at the bottom of the scale?  The minimum wage in Massachusetts is $8.00 per hour.  At 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, the bottom end of the scale (in theory) is $16,640 with $4992 for rent or mortgage, which equals $416 a month.

Your prospects are limited enough at $893 a month for home or condo ownership, so the answer is an apartment, with roommates.  At $416 a month you end up living in a three decker somewhere in Worcester, filled to the brim with your friends and relatives, working multiple jobs.  More often than not you're scrambling for rent and a way to pay bills.  You end up moving more than you should, and you end up in some shady apartments where the landlord doesn't maintain the property, and certainly doesn't live in it with you.  Code enforcement and Housing Courts are backlogged with good and bad tenants and good and bad landlords.  There's little relief in sight, and the best most people caught in this loop can hope for is an escape for their children.

That's a pretty grim reality.  How do we fix it?  Not with quotes like this:

"More emphasis should be placed on attracting a higher class of people, who in turn would improve the commercial vitality of the City, and allow the City to leverage more private investement [sic]."
I don't want to pick a fight with whoever said that, but I do want to pick a fight with the mindset that creates a quote like that and gets a lot of heads nodding in agreement.  I don't deny the reality of Worcester's inner city neighborhoods.  I've lived here my whole life, and volunteered as a coach for over 20 years at a little league that draws from the Piedmont area.  There are a lot of reasons why it's bad and anyone who thinks that it is either society's fault or the individual's fault isn't going to solve the problem.

I understand that Mr. Randell wants to improve the City, and he makes excellent points on his blog on ways to improve our housing stock and increase ownership.  Worcester has been searching elsewhere for a 'higher class of people' for as long as I've been alive.  There's always been a call from City leadership for an Arts District, or an Outlet Mall, or Mixed Use Parcels, or a Regional Airport that will save Worcester and bring the classy people flocking to us with open wallets.  So far, none of those have worked.

Looking elsewhere for saviors is useless in the middle of a recession.  I don't care how many reports, slogans and studies the City Council, the Chamber of Commerce or the Research Bureau have issued.  Until we improve ourselves, the surrounding area is going to look at us with disdain (largely because we do the same thing to ourselves.)

Here's my plan: Education, Jobs, Renovation, Re-use and Ownership.  The first two are pretty obvious.  If we improve our educational system and opportunities, then our residents will be more desirable as a work force.  If we create better jobs in the area from the bottom up, our inner city will improve.  The third is more complex, and is exactly where the affordable housing debate gets murky because we haven't done the first two things consistently.  We haven't managed our rental market properly at all.  We need a vigilant Code Department that can respond to problems properties and get solutions.  We need to cut down on the rate of absentee landlords.  We need to encourage ownership and occupancy as much as we do investment (much like Joe O'Brien did personally). 

If we do those three things well, then the higher class of people will be the people already here.  And when we get these things right, the 'higher class of people' elsewhere will realize that Worcester is 'The Paris of the Eighties', and move here.

Then we'll complain about outsiders ruining our City.  But that's a story I'll leave to Rosalie or Diane.


Nicole said...

I meant to write you earlier and tell you how much I appreciated this.

Regarding landlords: I think there are a lot of scuzzy landlords out there, and a lot of decent people who would never want to be landlords because of equally scuzzy tenants. I had a discussion with a (Canadian citizen, American permanent resident) friend a few weeks ago, and she said she was SHOCKED at how much you can get away with as a tenant here. I guess where she's from (B.C.), you write out a post-dated check for each month's worth of rent for the whole year. If there are issues between landlord and tenant, it goes before an arbitration board. She said if she still lived in Canada, she'd be a landlord in a heartbeat; here, never.

My concern about a "higher class of people" is that there are plenty of decent people who live here who are just scraping by. If the average family of four earns $79,700 per year (according to WoMag, and I have to say that that figure shocked me at how high it is), and the duplexes on my (pretty blue-collar) street are going for $175,000-250,000, and if someone like ME qualifies for affordable housing (and the prices of "affordable" housing are 2.5 times that of my mortgage payment), then I think we still have a major housing issue.

Oh -- did I mention that I think what you wrote is wonderful? Care to submit it for an op-ed?

SFD said...

Thanks for the kind words. I fully admit I am over my head when it comes to the financial side of the argument and the alphabet soup of bureaucracy so an op-ed will have to wait until I learn more.

I'm single and just barely over the margin for affordable housing, and I need a roommate so that I have money at the end of the month to save and enjoy. I've only rented in four places my whole life, and was lucky enough to have 3 good landlords and a good realty company managing the fourth place. If only there was a better path to ownership that doesn't rely on credit history, mortgages and exorbitant interest rates to vultures masquerading as bankers.

I've worked with a bunch of people who live in the inner core of Worcester. They are the sort of 'lower class of people' that gives Worcester its stigma in the eyes of the 'higher class of people.' They're no different from anyone on the other side of Park Ave, only more marginalized and disenfranchised. Solve that and this issue disappears.