Affordable Housing and the American Dream

By Joan Blades, Founding Partner, Living Room Conversations. Reprinted from Huffington Post.

Last month I was part of a community Living Room Conversation event about affordable housing at the Peninsula JCC in Silicon Valley, a community that is severely housing cost burdened.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, housing is considered affordable when a person pays no more than 30 percent of income toward housing costs, including utilities. When people pay more than 30 percent of income toward housing costs, they are considered “housing cost burdened,” and when they pay more than 50 percent, they are considered severely housing cost burdened.

I listened to a wide variety of stories- A homeowner that would like to move but couldn’t afford to. Younger people who saw their friends moving away and were wondering if they too would need to find somewhere else to live. A mature renter who tried to compete in the housing market but has given up because others are able to make cash offers and pay substantially above the asking price for the homes that were in her price range. Parents that would like to live near their children. Parents that had their children move back home because this was the only way they could live in the area. And everybody was unhappy with transportation. Car trips that could take 15 minutes might easily take an hour due to traffic. And general agreement that public transit options are poor. I came away with the impression that most local people are unhappy with local living dynamics.

The conversations we had left me thinking about the need to rethink housing in the Bay Area and many other parts of the country. Breaking up families and community is bad for people. We are healthier and more resilient when we are well connected in our communities.

I find myself wondering how much of the oppressive traffic is people commuting from far away because they can not afford to live close to where they work? Teachers, police and service workers can not afford to buy housing or pay rent near where they work. A surprising number of people talked about New York’s transportation system with envy – where is ours? Being a person that works from home I also thought about the many people that might work very effectively from home or a local work-share space. Traffic has become a misery in the Bay Area that causes some people to think fondly of the recession.  It is also a key reason that many people oppose building more housing.

We didn’t even talk about homelessness. But that is always in the back of my mind. Everywhere I go in the Bay Area I see homeless people. Often I see encampments… and fencing where homeless people have been pushed out.  And this doesn’t begin to cover the homeless people that live in cars and are couch surfing.

I learned that just last year we had a net increase of 90,000 people in the Bay area and that we are behind on building to satisfy the need for housing. I was reminded that the purchase of a home has been the primary way for Americans to accumulate wealth over the last many decades. In the Bay Area the capacity to purchase a home had become near impossible for a huge percentage of the population. Developers are building for the well off but the creation of housing for middle and low-income people is not even close to what is needed. Recently, when 115 affordable housing units became available in San Leandro there were over 12,000 applicants for those units! There are reasons that more and more people are living in their cars or worse on the streets.

I find myself wondering about changing incentives for building, transportation and life style. How do we make it easier for people to live close to where they work? And can we make our communities more walk-able and bike-able? What about high density small units for the city with some spacious shared space? Let’s stop building bedroom communities but rather build communities for people like me that would love to live somewhere that had a nice vibrant town center with cafes and shared workspace – and my kids could afford to live near by. We could have co-housing for people that lean that way and maybe even some local agriculture on the edges of town. Let’s take some of the pressure off of the urban centers and build some affordable destination towns that are so cool that those of us that work remotely want to live there.

It is time to get moving on a multifaceted approach to addressing the housing shortage here and around the country. I met a young man yesterday that is part of YIMBY- Yes in My Back Yard. It is time for us to say YES collectively, listen deeply and explore together how we can make our communities great places to live that support the dignity of all.

Joan Blades is cofounder of and, as well as coauthor of The Motherhood Manifesto and The Custom-Fit Workplace: Choose When, Where and How to Work and Boost the Bottom Line. Trained as an attorney/mediator with ten years experience as a software entrepreneur, Joan is also an artist, mother and true believer in the power of citizens and the need to rebuild respectful civil discourse and embrace our core shared values.

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