Housing Unafforable to a Great Many in YpsiNathanael Romero
Over the past year and a half, I served on the City of Ypsilanti’s Housing Affordability and Accessibility Committee. The term “affordable housing” can be confusing to many. Oftentimes when people hear the term, they think of government-subsidized housing. The term is often a loaded one in the minds of people who, for one reason or another, don’t like the idea of government being in the business of housing or who simply don’t want to see subsidized housing in their neighborhood.
To avoid the confusion, affordable housing advocates like myself often speak of “housing affordability,” namely, whether or not housing costs are affordable at a given income level. One common measure of housing affordability is the 30-percent standard, established by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and used by government and nonprofit housing agencies alike.
According to the 30-percent standard, one’s housing is affordable if one pays no more than 30 percent of one’s income on housing and housing-related costs; this includes rent or mortgage payments, property taxes, insurance, utilities, repairs, and so forth. If you pay more than 30 percent of your income on housing, you are considered cost burdened, which is just a fancy way of saying that your housing is unaffordable to you at your income level.
According to the 2016 American Community Survey (ACS), the median income of Ypsilanti city is right around $33,000. Published annually by the US Census Bureau, the ACS is commonly cited in discussions of housing policy and was a key source of data that our committee used in analyzing the current housing situation in Ypsilanti. According to the 30-percent standard, someone making $33,000 should be spending no more than $825 a month on housing. Yet anyone who has looked at rental listings knows that finding an apartment for $800 or less is becoming more of a rarity with each passing year.
Now the 30-percent standard has its limitations. In many ways, it is an arbitrary number that doesn’t reflect the realities of the current housing crisis or the day-to-day lives of those with the most need. The 30-percent standard breaks down at lower incomes because folks at the lower end of the income spectrum will have a much smaller absolute dollar amount left over after they’ve paid for housing.
For the sake of ease, let’s imagine someone making $1,000 a month. Glancing at 2016 ACS data, somewhere around 15% of households in Ypsilanti city make $1,000 a month or less. Moreover, $1,000 is more than the maximum monthly amount of $771 paid to individuals receiving Federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI). But let’s keep it at $1,000 for the sake of this thought experiment. If someone makes only $1,000 a month, in order to avoid being cost burdened, they would have to pay no more than $300 on housing related expenses. But we know that it’s next to impossible for someone to find housing at $300 a month!
And even if someone making $1,000 a month is able to find housing at that rate, they will still only have only $700 left for non-housing related expenses each month. Compare that with someone making $33,000 a year, which would translate to a monthly income of $2,750. If you subtract $825 (which is 30% of $2,750) in housing costs from a monthly income of $2,750, you’d be left with $1,925. That is a lot more than the $700 left over for someone making only $1,000 a month. And all this is assuming that people at these respective income levels are able to find housing that costs only 30% the amount of their monthly income, which we know is becoming increasingly unlikely.
It is not surprising then that half of the households in Ypsilanti city are cost burdened. This is especially true for renters. Roughy 70% of households in the city are renter households (according to 2016 ACS figures), 59% of which are cost burdened. In comparison, only 27% of owner-occupied households are cost burdened. Regardless, 27% is still a high percentage, and homeownership remains elusive for households making around or below Ypsilanti‘s median income.
Any way you slice it, Ypsilanti is facing a severe housing affordability crisis. While it is common in conversations on regional housing policy to hear that Ypsilanti has a disproportionate amount of “affordable” (that is, subsidized) housing units in comparison with the rest of the county, that does not mean that housing affordability is not an issue for a great deal of Ypsilantians. Simply put, too many people in Ypsilanti cannot afford their housing. And that’s just using the 30% standard, which we know underestimates how dire the situation is for low-income households.
Many people will point out that housing affordability is an “income issue” and that the means of addressing the housing crisis is to raise incomes. That would be fine if we could guarantee that housing costs wouldn’t rise along with incomes. But we know that as long as housing is a commodity, landlords and sellers will simply charge as much as the highest earner is willing to pay. Moreover, the drive to bring in more high-paying jobs to an area doesn’t necessarily mean that those jobs will be going to those who could most use the additional income. “Job creation” is often the means by which higher-income individuals move to an area and displace lower-income residents for whom those higher-paying jobs remain out of reach.
In many ways, this points us to the contradiction inherent in the very idea of housing affordability. When housing security is dependent on one’s ability to “afford” it, we see that housing security becomes a contingent privilege, rather than the human right it is supposed to be. The more we de-couple housing from one’s ability to pay for it, the closer we will be to achieving housing justice. The only way to make this happen is for massive direct investments in housing. We need to tackle this crisis head-on and the first step is to acknowledge the depth of the crisis. We have the data, we now just need the coordinated will to address the problem.