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Cheap housing sparks discord

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This is a local article, but it brings up the bigger issue of what to do about affordable housing.... thoughts?

http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/10182804.htm

Cheap housing sparks discord

BY SAMUEL P. NITZE

[email protected]

Fort Lauderdale leaders and others across the country are considering a new approach to affordable housing: How about requiring developers to include some low-cost homes in every project, or, failing that, to pay into a housing trust fund?

Developers have resisted, arguing that the best way to encourage more affordable housing is to provide incentives, not to shake a thicker rule book. More regulations and fees only make development more difficult, they say, and could drive builders to areas with fewer restrictions.

''I've never been one to believe that government should do things with a big stick,'' said Jack Loos, president of First Lauderdale Investments and a board member of the city's Downtown Development Authority. ``I feel you always get more cooperation and a better product in the end if you do it with honey or a carrot.''

But could the big stick work?

The question has inched toward center stage as policymakers struggle to ensure that South Florida's store clerks and janitors and nurses can afford a place to live.

Laws that require some part of each project to be affordable -- known as ''inclusionary zoning'' -- have worked in other places across the country, but few, if any, are on the books in Florida. With home prices eclipsing wage increases, that won't last, said Jaimie Ross, affordable-housing director at 1000 Friends of Florida, a nonprofit growth-management group.

''I think it's going to catch on all over the state,'' she said.

Montgomery County, Md., runs a typical program, requiring developers of large residential projects to make between 12 and 15 percent of the units affordable to middle-income earners such as teachers and police officers. In return, developers receive permission to build more units than otherwise allowed and other compensation meant to protect profit.

SUCCESS STORY

The county's policy, among the oldest of its sort in the country, has produced nearly 12,000 affordable units since it began in 1974, most of them mixed in with market-rate development, program administrator Eric Larsen said.

In New Jersey, a statewide affordable housing policy has produced 25,000 moderately priced units in the past decade, said Robert Burchell, director of the Center for Urban Policy Research at Rutgers University.

''Everyone has a relative, friend, or employee who lives in affordable housing. It's woven into the woodwork,'' he said. ``The developer is making money while putting in affordable housing -- and it takes place where markets are active. It takes place in good school districts. It's a perfect tool.''

Skeptics argue that the tool doesn't always work and that developers shouldn't be the only ones to solve the problem.

''It's always very easy to jump to, well, where is the developer that's going to kick in the dough to make workforce housing happen, when it is a collective problem,'' said Doug Eagon, president of Stiles Corp., speaking several months ago at a Fort Lauderdale meeting.

Developers and builders insist that the best way to attack the problem is to encourage voluntary construction of low-cost housing.

Their suggestions include speeding up permitting for projects with price caps; subsidizing land acquisition; and eliminating or reducing public hearings on affordable projects, which often draw knee-jerk opposition from the Not-In-My-Back-Yard crowd.

Perhaps most important, allow them to increase the number of units allowed per acre, said Luis Rabell, former president of the Builders Association of South Florida and a member of Miami-Dade County's affordable-housing advisory board.

VOLUNTARY PROGRAMS

''If you come up with some program that makes sense,'' he said, ``you will see you have a lot of support to do it voluntarily.''

But experts who have studied inclusionary zoning say voluntary programs seldom produce the same results, in part because of the developers' drive to make as much profit as possible.

Cambridge, Mass., had a voluntary program from 1988 to 1998 that didn't produce any low-cost housing, said Chris Cotter, the city's housing director. A mandatory program begun in 1999 has produced more than 200 affordable units, now costing about $165,000 for a two-bedroom home, he said.

Supporters of inclusionary zoning acknowledge that piling too many regulations on residential developers alone could undermine the goal of providing more housing. To ensure that employers help support housing as well, Ross, of 1000 Friends of Florida, urges local governments to collect fees from commercial development.

But in general, developers adapt to mandatory requirements and still manage to figure out how to make money, she said.

''They would rather not have it,'' Ross said. ``But they consider it a cost of doing business. . . . They do it because they are forced to.''

Another controversial element of inclusionary zoning is the inclusionary part -- the move to create mixed-income communities that blend expensive and affordable housing.

Opponents of such intervention say it distorts the market -- investment bankers may not want to live next to dental hygienists -- and smacks of wrongheaded social engineering. Some proponents of a society less segregated by income disagree.

''Wouldn't it be great if you had poorer kids coming out the door, seeing a doctor, having a chance to talk to a doctor or bank manager and dream of becoming that?'' said Broward County Commissioner Josephus Eggelletion, a supporter of inclusionary zoning. ``These are the role models our kids need and don't see on a regular basis.''

As the debate about what to do and how carries on in housing workshops and roundtables, there is widespread agreement that time is running short.

Each year, a new spate of studies sounds the alarm: a housing crisis looms. In the Fort Lauderdale area, the median sales price for existing homes has soared more than 90 percent since 2000, compared with a 6 percent rise in median family income. The median home, priced at about $300,000, is beyond the grasp of a family earning the median income of $57,700.

Fort Lauderdale Commissioner Carlton Moore, who represents many of his city's poorest residents, is pushing hard for an inclusionary zoning law or something similar. But during budget talks this year, the City Commission cut money for a study required to support such a law.

Moore said he is open to suggestions and eager to draw a broad range of players to the table, including developers, employers, bankers, nonprofit organizations, government agencies and others.

''But it cannot be voluntary,'' he said, ``because that does not work.''

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My personal opinion:

I'm a believer in the free market, but I also believe something needs to be done to include everyone in our cities. I'd like to see developers be forced to design a certain number of small units and lofts. Those would be lower and price and open up other housing for others.

Also, NIMBYs are a big reason why housing prices are so high. People complain when they build condo towers then they complain when the poor don't have anywhere to live. It's supply and demand. The more towers we build the larger the supply, the cheaper the demand is going to be.

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I say push it lower. I have never understood why we continue to herd all lower income people into projects, etc.. where the only challenge to improve themselves is people who are economically or educationally as bad-off as themselves or worse. I even feel that Habitat for Humanity is failing because they tend to build only in lower-income areas. HUD subsidies should be pumped into the a regulated, while still mostly free market rather than into public housing and the deep pockets of crime therein. To take the edge off the regulation, a tax incentive should be given to the home builders, subdivision developers, or apartment community owners.

It only makes sense to bring lower-income housing out of the ghetto and pepper it into run-of-the-mill, middle-income areas. On the other hand, there will be those who complain that an entire culture (that of the ghetto) will become extinct.

NIMBYs - if everyone's back yard is the same and their choice in the matter is taken away ("sorry, guys, you're going to have to live with your fellow man") by making the same requirement of all communities, their voices will eventually fade away as they learn to be less frightened of people poorer than themselves. This may sound a little communist but we are talking about communities here and they do share the same Latin root.

Here's a simple formula: x% of housing affordable to those below y% of the median income in areas that are greater than or equal to z% of the metropolitan median income -- this creates an avenue for upward mobility on all levels. Forget inclusionary zoning and all that crap; the homes should be exactly the same as everyone else's; otherwise, the stigma of poverty persists in the most visible of places. Cars are still the individual's issue, though.

You can teach a man to fish but without proper tackle he'll starve.

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