Grow the Pie. Communities can also encourage affordable housing in ways that don’t require effort from revenue-strapped governments and organizations. Prices go down when supply goes up. Allan Mallach, author of the article, The Case for Affordable Housing notes: “[w]e need to focus also on replenishing the dwindling supply of plain vanilla rental housing.”
With well-designed streets and buildings as prerequisite, new construction can make a real dent in affordability and maintain a vibrant downtown.
Building more housing in downtown locations can be a win-win. The urban nature of downtowns can absorb new construction more easily than low-rise neighborhoods. Increasing downtown housing puts more people in a location transportation costs are cheap. Since downtown residents use cars less, if at all, parking requirements can also be reduced and sometimes eliminated altogether, which greatly improves a developer’s ability to deliver more housing. The price of each on-site parking space can be extremely high. In some places, it can be cheaper to give each resident a free transit pass than to pay for more on-site parking.
Cities can improve affordability by making it easier to build smaller and more efficient units. Many buyers and renters will accept smaller units if their surroundings compensate. In an amenity-rich urban center, small need not be solely for frugality but can put you at the heart of things. Location still matters hugely with real estate.
Smaller units and fewer parking spaces are two important ways to promote “affordability by design.” San Diego boosted the number of small units built in the Gas Lamp and other districts by eliminating code requirements for full kitchens and other non-essential features. Design innovations by architects and developers have also led to the development of “micro-units,” a new generation of extremely efficient dwellings that offer more utility and shared amenities than larger more typical apartments.
On Gentrification. As urban vitality and walk-to amenities increase, property values rise and poorer residents might no longer afford to live there. This process is often used to argue against new development when in fact it should be an argument for programs that promote deeply affordable housing (see above).
In City: Rediscovering the Center, William White summed it up this way,
The implicit assumption of the gentrification concept is that the chief threat to housing for the poor is the improvement of neighborhoods. The problem is the opposite. The chief threat is the deterioration of neighborhoods. The poor are not being hurt by middle-class investments. They are being hurt by disinvestments – by landlords and owners who let buildings go to rot…More units have been lost through abandonment in the Bronx alone than have been provided by brownstone rehabilitation in all of New York City.
(Whyte also noted that, upon analysis, in fact renters move frequently and very little direct displacement results from revitalization, and that those who are displaced can receive assistance.)
Over the long-term, prices go up when supply doesn’t keep up with demand, so growth is important but it needs to be done right. Revitalize. Build housing in best locations. Insist on good design. Invest in public spaces. Address the needs of the less fortunate, and use economic development to help pay for this. Downtown is a place where these aspirations can come together as a natural whole.