Squeezed out of a house

Posted: July 08, 2007

For just about all but people in the top income brackets, there is a crisis of housing affordability in the United States, observers say.

Middle-income American service workers, especially those earning between $20,000 and $50,000 a year, have suffered the most, said William Hudnut 3d, an Urban Land Institute fellow and ex-mayor of Indianapolis.

"Workforce housing is a touchy topic that generates a lot of talk but not a lot of attention - except that it should be built somewhere else," Hudnut said.

Workers in need of such housing are often referred to as "those people." But that's an unfair categorization, Hudnut said, because they are providers of critical services - dental assistants, auto mechanics, schoolteachers, police and firefighters - "the backbone of our economy who are getting squeezed by the housing-jobs imbalance that permeates our country."

In many cities, there is no affordable housing close to employment centers, which forces people to live far from where they work. "Those of us in land use know that the disconnect is a real problem, with major social, economic and environmental implications," he said.

Demand for less expensive housing can work two ways, said Bob Hay, a real estate broker in the Poconos who is to become president of the Pennsylvania Association of Realtors in January.

"Thirty years ago, 95 percent of the business real estate agents handled in Monroe County were vacation homes and 5 percent primary homes," Hay said. "The numbers are just the reverse today. There has been a huge influx of people from northern New Jersey and New York City because our housing prices are lower than in those areas.

"There are 20,000 people in Monroe County who commute to jobs in those areas every day, leaving at 4:30 a.m. and getting home at 9 to 10 at night," he said.

So many buyers, coupled with higher development costs, created major problems. "School districts can't find teachers who are able to afford to live in those districts," Hay said. "One regional police department expanded its rules on [how far] an officer can live from headquarters to 40 miles from 10, which is hard to imagine."

Although a lot of commuters are willing to live farther out in the suburbs, Hudnut said, "they don't factor in the cost of that commute . . . as a rising expense."

"This suggests a lingering gap between perception and reality," he said. "These moderate-income workers probably don't know that desirable affordable housing close to jobs is an option. It can be developed close to jobs in a way that can provide a high quality of life in proximity to amenities and work.

"Far-flung suburban living is not sustainable in conserving land and energy," he said.

If you build affordable close-in housing, people will buy it, said Robert Vieira of Westrum Development Co., which has several projects under way in Philadelphia.

"In urban areas, a lot of housing is not targeted to middle-income people," said Vieira. Neighborhood community-development groups "do a great job with coming up with housing for low and moderate income, and then there is very high income, but not much in between."

Westrum targets the middle market, yet Vieira acknowledged that doing so can be difficult because "at the same time you are trying to attract mid-level buyers, you are trying to attract investment in some shape or form as well."

Until Westrum stepped in, many sites it is developing had been dormant for years.

"They are all large-scale properties with little value, and we are able to create the value," said Vieira, adding that some Westrum buyers fit Hudnut's description. "Yet you have to build where investors are willing to invest and people are willing to buy, because the buyers are investors, too."

Many local community-development corporations take what Hudnut called a mixed-income approach to developing affordable housing, as well as adding value to sites with little value.

For example, Mount Airy USA has developed 11 townhouses on an East Montana Street lot that was vacant for 30 years - as well as Winston Commons, condos and commercial space in a historic building on nearby Germantown Avenue, and commercial buildings a few hundred yards away.

When D.L. Wormley was associate treasurer of the University of Pennsylvania a decade ago, then-president Judith Rodin wanted to try to stabilize the surrounding neighborhood.

"The university took a comprehensive approach - employment to get people to work at the university and its hospitals, creating a neighborhood school, and taking advantage of a mortgage-assistance program for full-time Penn employees that already was in place but wasn't being used very much," said Wormley, now director of initiatives at the nonprofit NeighborhoodsNow.

"We enhanced the mortgage program for employees, hospital and university, full-time staff, of all income levels," she said. "We went from having 100 to 200 houses on the market on any given day, and on the market for years, to almost nothing available."

The mortgage incentive and the counseling Wormley's staff provided allowed 300 people to buy houses in 24 months. "We did too good a job, because we are a hot community," she said of University City.

What can be done to provide more such housing?

NeighborhoodsNow encourages people to join with community organizations and others to decide what would make a neighborhood better, "starting with beautification, since that will increase the willingness of neighbors to invest in their houses," Wormley said.

Pennsylvania Realtors are working with the Pennsylvania Housing Alliance, the state Housing Finance Agency, and local groups to discuss programs for assisted housing, Hay said. "We need to start a dialogue with employers and medical centers and police and teachers all having problems with workforce housing," he said.

The Urban Land Institute is using $5 million from former chairman Ronald Terwilliger to create a Center for Workforce Housing that plans to complete 3,500 units in Washington, Atlanta and South Florida in three years.

The institute also will work to make inclusionary zoning - requirements that affordable housing be part of planning ordinances - mandatory everywhere.

"Housing that is segregated by income is not conducive to a thriving community," Hudnut said. "A truly sustainable community is one that provides housing choices."

Priced Out of Ownership

Most working people earning between $20,000

and $50,000 in metropolitan Philadelphia can't afford

to buy a median-price* house here ($294,000 in third-quarter 2006).

Annual median income* needed to buy: $100,715

Job                      Annual median income

Auto mechanic          $43,261

Dental assistant          $35,718

Elementary teacher       $50,487

Firefighter                $40,533

News reporter            $36,924

Paralegal                $54,252

Police officer             $49,067

Welder                   $42,743

* Median is the midpoint; half the prices and incomes are higher, half are lower.

SOURCE: Center for Housing Policy

Commuting and Spending

Percentage of income spent on transportation and housing by households earning between $20,000 and $50,000 annually in selected metropolitan areas in 2006.

                  Transportation      Housing          Total

Philadelphia      27                  29               56

Miami             31                  28               59

New York         32                  24               56

Pittsburgh         22                  33               55

Phoenix            27                  30               57

San Francisco      35                  27               62

Washington       32                  28               60

Metro average      28                  30               57

SOURCE: Center for Housing Policy

Contact real estate writer Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472 or aheavens@phillynews.com.

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