Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Idea of "Affordable Housing," part I

At right is a photo I snapped of a shotgun-style house while visiting and exploring Memphis a few years ago.  Such exceedingly modest homes on small lots are abundant throughout the American south, with entire neighborhoods in some cities lined with little other than shotgun houses.  This particular structure was built around 1920 and is just less than 800 square feet.  Originally it must have been even smaller, as changing foundation material, window sizes and siding toward the rear betray an addition now comprising about one quarter of the house.

This is not intended as a foray into Southern architecture, however, but as an observation that, in that not-so-distant past, the private real estate market did in fact produce large quantities of low-cost housing for poor and working-class Americans.  The house pictured was not constructed for wealthy or middle-income persons of the 1920s, as their choice (at least in the south) was largely the bungalow or the foursquare.   Thus, shotgun houses were "affordable," so to speak, from the moment they were built.

While I do not know who built it and by what financial arrangement, whether it was intended for sale or as a rental, nor do I know the circumstances of the first occupant, the presence of the house in an age before inclusionary zoning, rent control, and, indeed, widely accessible residential mortgage lending, testifies to the fact that the market at the time was capable of supplying reasonably decent accomodation to persons of limited means.

Sometime between 1920 and 1950, construction of housing of this type and cost virtually ceased.  Today, memory of the earlier past has been so thoroughly forgotten that it is not uncommon to hear stated as fact that the United States always had an affordable housing problem, or that the free market is inherently incapable of providing housing affordable to the poor.  For those who acknowledge the change, the culprits named responsible have been almost too numerous to mention: the emergence of zoning and other constraints on use of land; urban renewal; mass development of public housing; increased costs for labor and materials; new building codes and regulations; the decline of manufacturing, and many more.  In a a subsequent post, I'll take a closer look at some of these explanations.

9 comments:

  1. I have volunteered for habitat for humanity and a local version of this style of charity based providing "affordable housing". My impression has been it is a disaster in terms of meeting it's goals. with a lot of money and a lot of manpower they provide a very few with a nice house. Shortly after the cameras and media go away the new owner either loses the house as a result of the same ignorance/stupidity that made them need charity to begin with OR they sell it and spend the profit on drugs. My wife bought a nice little mobile home for her mother about 8 years ago for $12k. Two years ago she bought a nice little mobile home for our son for $6k. We visit the parks where these homes are located often and there is always a "bargin" for sale. This IS affordable housing. It is a starter home and it costs 1/10th to 1/20th of what the charities consider affordable housing.
    Let me add that I do not choose to live in a trailer park however it is our hope that our son will feel the same way and work hard to better himself and get out of the trailer park. Isn't that what we should want for anyone who needs charity? We shouldn't give them their dream we should give them a chance to find their dream themselves.

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  2. My grandparents bought a similar style house in the south in the late 1920s for cash. They were not well-off, just very frugal people who did not believe in borrowing money. These types of houses truly were that affordable. They lived in that house for over 50 years until they passed away. Who could imagine an average factory worker paying cash for a house these days?

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  3. Zoning is the number one enemy, followed closely by codes, rules, and regulations. What was once the province of gated communities is now applied to the whole damn county! Minimum square footage rules meant to keep out minorities and the poor. I don't think most people realize that property rights have become a complete fiction. Your home is not your castle anymore. And don't even begin to get me started on HOA's! Good article!

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  4. Thanks for the thoughtful comments, everyone, much appreciated. And excellent point about mobile homes by the first commenter -- I will work them into a follow-up post.

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  5. I have a co-authored chapter on shotgun housing in John Gilderbloom's paper collection, _Invisible City_. We made a similar point about affordable housing being enabled by a reduction in the amount and cost of basic inputs (amount of land, materials, etc.). That's why shotgun housing is an interesting housing type. As long as master land use plans don't look at housing types and mixing them in a concerted fashion, we will continue to have the problem we have, especially because lower cost housing doesn't make much money for production builders.

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  6. Richard, thanks for visiting the blog, for your comment and for pointing me to your chapter. I'm very interested to read it since I have not found a whole lot of literature out there focusing on the economics of these vernacular American housing types of the 19th and early 20th century.

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  7. Mr. Layman say's "especially because lower cost housing doesn't make much money for production builders".
    I'm a builder. I try to build small and affordable. My local officials do everything they can to put me out of business. The minimum sqft in my area is 1500 to 2000, depending on the neighborhood. Every year the fire protection industry tries to get sprinklers mandated, please add 2-5 thou per home. The environmental regs require more engineering and submissions, all ridiculously subjective, each year. I built a duplex once, zoned properly, and the town then passed a moratorium on multi-family units because of neighbors objections, ruining the several other lots I had planned. The lack of low cost housing is not due to builders. We need less top down dictates and more property rights. Things that are reasonable for a $350,000 home should not be required on a 140,000 home. I had a buyer wanted to save a few shekels and do their own finished floors (carpet/tile/etc.) Town would not issue a c/o until the finished floors were completed. Some folks really just want a roof over their head. Why are they required to install what they consider luxuries? Why should their neighbors dictate so many details of their home?

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  8. The idea of affordable housing is very helpful for those homeless and low-income people. This will give them a more stable living environment.

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  9. The builder's comments above are very important.

    I would add, however, that $140,000 hardly seems "affordable" to me. The real "affordable housing" these days is indeed the trailer park. We should think of different types of housing in the $30,000-$50,000 range. Basically, it would be small apartments of 250-600 square feet. In other words, about the same size as a trailer. However, it should be in an urban format -- basically an apartment building -- not a super-cheap version of the suburbs, i.e. a trailer park.

    Builders will build anything that they can make a good profit margin on. Selling a house for $500,000 that cost $400,000 to build is just the same, to a builder, as selling ten $50,000 apartments that cost you $40,000 each to build. You can buy a new trailer for $12,000. You should be able to make a profit margin on anything for which there is consumer demand. Don't blame the builders.

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