Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
Researchers at the Urban Institute make the case for preservation instead of construction.
How widespread is the affordable housing crisis? Well, not a single county in the U.S. has enough affordable units to go around.
Constructing more housing is important (albeit not easy), but we can’t just build our way out of the problem: In some cases, the cheaper, better option is to simply preserve the existing affordable housing stock, instead of allowing it to get swept away by development.
"There's a big discussion about affordable housing out there, but the issue of preservation ... it's not always as sexy as new construction,” says Mark Treskon, a research associate at the Urban Institute, who has co-authored a new research brief about preservation. “It can get a little bit lost in the shuffle."
The need to save housing that’s affordable right now is growing in urgency: Rents have been rising for more than a decade, as have the numbers of renters. According to a previous analysis by the Urban Institute, there are only 28 affordable units for every 100 renter households with incomes at or below 30 percent of area median income. Between 2001 and 2013, the U.S. housing market saw the disappearance of 2.4 million affordable units—both subsidized ones and market-rate units that households earning 50 percent of regional median income can afford. The loss is most acute in strong housing markets such as New York City’s, but it’s also seen in weaker ones, “where neglect and deterioration threaten affordable units,” according to the new UI brief.
Saving those properties holds significant advantages. Preservation can be cheaper than new construction, consistent with existing land use, and is less likely to displace for residents. The biggest hurdle: getting the money together to finance and maintain these projects. "In a strong housing market, they are in competition with market-rate developers, who often have capital available and can put together their funding pretty quickly,” Treskon says. “That's a challenge—some of these developments are very large and cost millions and millions of dollars."
But it can be done. In their brief, Treskon and his colleague Sara McTarnaghan compiled six examples from around the country that have successfully preserved existing affordable stock. Here’s how they did it:
It’s not just about buildings
“Manufactured housing” (or mobile homes) are a huge source of affordable housing in rural communities. But residents seldom own the land they’re parked on. That’s not the case at the Vida Lea Mobile Estates in Leaburg, Oregon. The owner of this 33-space mobile home park for senior citizens sold the property to some residents, who then converted it to a Resident Owned Community (ROC). Via the brief:
A new hybrid homeownership and rental model, a ROC lets residents purchase and control their park, managing infrastructure, operations, and common areas. Members own their homes and rent empty spaces to generate revenue that covers debt service and operating expenses.
Using the ownership model provided by ROC, and with the help of local laws and funders, residents were able to maintain and improve upon their homes and community, spending $275,000 on infrastructure repairs like sewage system and driveways and amenities like laundry machines and common areas.
Vacant buildings can be resources, with a little local help
In the Austin neighborhood on Chicago’s struggling West Side, a large mixed-use building the sat vacant for over 20 years. In 2012, a prospective buyer was referred to the Community Investment Corporation, a Chicago-based organization that finances community development. With their help, the new owner transformed the building into a residential, commercial, and community space for high-risk youth.
Federal housing subsidies, like the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program, are immensely important for preservation efforts. But this case study is one of the many in the UI sample that demonstrate how useful local and state resources can be for financing such projects.
Leverage local policy
In 2008, a fire tore through the Monseñor Romero Apartments in Washington D.C’s Mt. Pleasant neighborhood, displacing its residents. But soon after, these residents used a handy D.C. policy—the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act—to reclaim their burned-out homes. This act requires that building owners give tenants the right to purchase their properties before selling it to other buyers. The Monseñor Romero residents invested this right in two national housing nonprofits with the capacity to put together the funds, and those organizations were able buy the building on behalf of the tenants in 2010.
Most of the low- and middle-income Hispanic residents have now moved back to these apartments, which are located in a bustling neighborhood with Latino groceries and public transit. Treskon says, the case demonstrates how a lot of preservation efforts work well in areas where local policies “allow residents to be able to come to the table and get a fair shake.”
Collaboration is better than competition
In many of the success stories in the UI brief, the original owner of the property is a willing participant in (or at least a sympathetic overseer of) the preservation effort. Take the case of the Putnam Square Apartments in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This is a property for elderly and disabled residents, built and previously owned by Harvard University. It was bought by Homeowner’s Rehab, Inc. (HRI), a housing nonprofit that renovated and updated the building. Harvard, however, was interested in the buyer’s vision for the property, and continued to provide some funding for residential services.
This and the other case studies provide a plethora of pointers for affordable housing advocates. Despite the diversity of geographical, economic, and political contexts,“there's some commonality in things that might work,” Treskon says. “To an extent, it’s an uphill battle, but preserving affordable housing carries with it a lot of advantages that builders, as well as lawmakers could really focus on.”