Opinion – Affordable Housing and the Unspoken Truths

Sep 13, 2020 | Commentary, Community, Economy, Opinion

Why affordable housing is not really about affordable housing

Jovan Agee

Affordable housing has long been a game that permits very few players, from a very select group.  This is one of the many unspoken problems with affordable housing. I liken it to AAU sports, private school, or perhaps a private country club. If you have never played a sport, there is typically no room for you to compete at the AAU level.  If you do not have the finances, or a fiscal sponsor, you will not be permitted to attend private school.  If you do not have a certain level of status or wealth, you won’t become a member of the country club.  Affordable housing has long been a game of pay to play. This game has left the state of California with a widening housing gap, increased wealth gap, and growing homeless population.  All of which the COVID19 pandemic is exacerbating – just wait for it!

The fact is, we’ve had a national affordable housing shortage since the late 1800’s hundreds. For as long as we have had a housing shortage, we have also had issues in administering every affordable housing program created – at the federal, state, and local level.

One of the nation’s first official affordable housing projects to be developed was Garden Homes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Built in 1923, this experimental municipally sponsored housing development was plagued at the onset with financial, legal, and political problems. Fast forward almost a century and the story remains the same.  The Garden Homes project got its start during the 1910 election campaign of Emil Seidel, the first Socialist mayor of a major city in the United States. The irony is, he ran on a platform that prioritized the construction of low cost homes for workers. 2020 you will not find an elected official in a major metropolitan area who is not promising to help tackle the elusive affordable housing problem. But how exactly have we fared over the past fifty years?

Today the United States has an affordable housing deficit of over 7.4 million homes with California accounting for over 1.1 million. The question is, if we have been tackling the affordable housing problem for the past 100 hundred years and the needle has not moved counter clockwise, exactly what problem have we been solving for?

We have veered so far off course from the basis under which affordable housing programs were originally created that there is simply no room to course correct under the existing system. We have created a system that has become costly and complex.  What is most troubling is that those responsible for administering the programs today are seemingly disconnected from the original policies and program roots. This has resulted in a continual pattern of abuse at every level leaving the general public in the dark as to what is occurring right under their noses. The sad part is that the abuse is seemingly innocent and is more of an oblivious ignorance in that people do not seek to understand or uncover history.

Who was affordable housing created for?

Affordable housing was a highly discriminative and segregated program that focused on the white middle class, leaving housing choices for Blacks inequitable and isolated. This isolation was an intentional derivative of federal housing policies that called for Blacks to be confined to their own environments. These environments were designed and developed by white men who were more concerned with keeping Black people away from the communities that they would design and develop for themselves, than providing decent, safe, affordable housing for Blacks.  This perpetuated the creation of Black ghettos – public housing – or what some of us referred to as the PJ’s. New Helvetia and Seavey Circle in Sacramento. Jordan Downs in Los Angeles. These communities have suffered from years of intentional disinvestment and today are continually the focus of revitalization efforts and gentrification.

At the onset, Black people had no choice as to where they would live, or who would design, develop, finance, and construct their affordable living spaces. This is the origin of the affordable housing system under which we still operate today. This is ultimately why the system has not worked, is beyond repair and cannot be better aligned nor reformed.

Not only must we allow new homes to be constructed in areas that have long been met with resistance, we must also allow new players to enter the game.

A critical component to fixing the economic issues in the United States – of which affordable housing is an element – is to level the playing field for Black people to have an active, equitable, participatory, and nonpacifying role in the affordable housing development arena.

This does not mean that we must fight harder for more Black heads of housing authorities, or Black elected officials, or Black government appointments, or Black housing advocates, or more diversity and equity officers.  This does not mean that we need more disparity studies, or commissions to examine Black issues.  It does not mean that we need another street renamed or named in honor of a Black person’s contribution to history.  It does not mean that we need another monument removed or built. Especially if these gestures are not closing the gaps that are plaguing Black people in communities across the nation.  That being the income inequality gap, the wealth gap, and the housing affordability gap.

Black developers should be at the forefront of shaping the future of communities and helping to rebuild neighborhoods. Black labor built many of our earliest communities and transportation systems. Black architects, developers, and engineers master planned and constructed entire communities which today cease to exist because of “revitalization policies, strategies, and tactics” that did not include Black people.  If Black lives truly matter, Black community development ideology matters.  If Black lives matter, as much as the words painted down Capitol Mall in front of the California State Capitol, and the Nation’s Capitol, let us play!

Jovan Agee is a veteran strategist and government affairs professional committed to building public-private partnerships that advance social and economic initiatives. He most recently served as Deputy Treasurer for the State of California Office of the Treasurer.

This is part 1 of a 3-part op ed on the unspoken truths of the affordable housing crisis.  Community development policy expert, consultant, and author Veronica Smith contributed to this article.

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