Affordable housing and inclusionary zoning are complicated subjects and it’s hard to sum up all my thoughts and objections to the schemes in one post, so I’m going to take the death-by-a-thousand-cuts approach. Today’s installment: income eligibility levels.
Now, the stated intent of affordable housing set-asides has always been a bit unclear to me. The cynic in me thinks it’s just a way for politicians to buy votes with public money by essentially randomly redistributing from the many (market-rate renters and buyers) to the few (the lucky handful to win the lotteries for coveted subsidized units). The stated motivation, though, seems to range anywhere from a combination of helping the poor find housing to having a little bit of housing diversity, even if that “diversity” means upper-middle class alongside upper class.
In my experience, though, the programs end up overwhelmingly fulfilling the latter goal. The latest example I’ve come upon, which doesn’t seem too out of the ordinary, is from a project called Tivoli Square in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of DC, which looks like it’s associated with the big development corporation-driven DCUSA project (As an aside, DCUSA was basically a huge urban mall in what was an obviously gentrifying neighborhood. The city ended up spending a large amount of money on a parking garage that now mostly sits empty, and they’ve been having trouble renting the retail spaces set aside for local businesses. It’s also architecturally pretty ugly, and houses way more national chains than the rest of the neighborhood. Politicians hail it as a success, but in my opinion it’s the worst thing to happen to Columbia Heights since urban renewal.)
Anyway, the zipcode’s median household income in 2009 was $57,393, and the project had a 20% set-aside for some combination of low- and medium-income. The upper limit for “low income” ranges from $50,000 for a household of one to $71,450 for a household of four, and the upper limit for “medium income” ranges from $68,750 for a household of one to $98,250 for a household of four. Oh yeah, and those limits were from 2005 and are probably a few thousand dollars higher now. And on top of that, public employees, who have better-than-average job security, medical benefits, and retirement plans, often get first dibs (along with local residents) on these sorts of things.
I guess it could be worse – in New York City you can keep your rent-stabilized/controlled apartment until you make $175,000/year and the rent on your apartment reaches $2,000/month (that’s the reduced price, not the market one!). The State Assembly just passed a bill to extend the limits to $300,000/year and $3,000/month, which absolutely astounds me. The Republican-controlled Senate won’t let it go that far, but rumor is they’re willing to let it rise a bit in exchange for property tax caps in the suburbs and upstate.