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Read the comments on almost any of our posts that talk about “affordable housing” and you’re likely to get a headache trying to figure out what different people mean by those two little words.

We asked our contributors what policies and problems come to mind when they think of “affordable housing.” We also asked about policies they support or don’t support, and why.

They had a LOT to say.

Tracy Loh says that we’re not the only ones baffled by this:

This topic came up on my neighborhood listserv recently, and several people on the listserv conflated “affordable housing” with “government-subsidized non-market housing.”

To me, there is a circle called “affordable housing,” which is housing that can be rented or mortgaged for 30% of the median household income in an area, and contained within that circle is a smaller circle, “subsidized housing,” which governments may choose to do for a variety of reasons. But the “affordable housing” circle is much, much bigger than just the “subsidized housing” circle, and includes a huge variety of policies, issues, and people that are not within the “subsidized housing” circle.

Brian McEntee agrees that the term is rhetorically problematic:

Sometimes I wonder how much better discussions around the topic would go if instead of using ‘affordable housing,’ urbanists talked about ‘housing affordability.’ I think that way it’s clearer that we’re talking about the price of housing in a given area and not idea of any particular kind of affordable housing (government subsidized, etc.)

Canaan Merchant also sees a dichotomy between government policies and the market prices most people face, but explained it differently:

I think it’s important to note case: Affordable Housing and affordable housing. The former are specific programs that help people live somewhere they wouldn’t be able to on their own. The region has come a long way and has a long way to go with its Affordable Housing.

But then there is simply the prices any person may need to pay and whether they can afford them.

The great part is that the two concepts can go hand in hand, and by and large that’s what many local governments are doing. There doesn’t need to be a disconnect in what people are talking about because we can move on multiple fronts. No one solution is going to work anyway.

Ben Ross chimed in too, not only to agree on the problems with semantics, but to point to why it’s important to get it all straight when we’re communicating:

We need to emphasize housing affordability as a need for all income levels below the very top.  Thinking of affordable housing as something that must be targeted to just the poor is an enormous mistake, both for planning and politics.

From the planning perspective, we want cities to be places for all income levels, not just the very rich and very poor.

Politically, affordable housing as something just for the poor just won’t be built.  No one will accept it in their own neighborhood. Housing (and urbanism!) will only be politically successful if it’s for the majority.  You can see this in the political success of social security and the political unpopularity of welfare.

Brent Bolin put a point on Ben’s perspective, with a real-world example:

How this is discussed really matters. Section 8 is not inclusionary zoning is not workforce housing is not affordable housing. For too many people, anything not market rate = Section 8 AKA “poor people moving to my neighborhood and my property values going down.”

A few years ago Mount Rainier issued a request for proposals to redevelop the city-owned property at the corner of Eastern and Rhode Island Avenues. An extremely reputable non-profit developer proposed a LEED Gold residential building that would have used a variety of tax credit strategies and targeted something like 70-80% of the AMI. In other words, housing for teachers, non-profit workers, young professionals…the kind of people needed in every community but who are struggling to get into ownership in the DC metro area. The developer kept calling it workforce housing (despite my warning them not to) and a lot of supposedly progressive people went BANANAS. The city does have over a thousand units of post-war apartment units, but despite popular perception those are not really a “low income” population anymore either.

For the last 40ish years, Mount Rainier has been a diverse, working class, socially progressive, and artistic community (i.e.: mostly people who aren’t rich). We are a tiny piece of the larger DC metro area real estate market, but we are starting to feel the pressure and the population mix of our recent history is starting to change. People in town are talking about “housing affordability” and who is getting priced out, but misunderstanding of this issue makes it very difficult to tackle. (Not that our tiny town could make much of a dent given the broader market, but still.)

Finally, Elina Braave summed up just how much more our contributors had to say on this:

I think what I’m hearing echoing throughout these comments is that there are a a few key challenges to developing affordable housing across the spectrum of incomes (moderate, low, extremely low), including

the negative stigma/public perception of affordable housing and the high cost of construction/land. I think another issue not-mentioned overtly is the shrinking pot of resources at the federal level (for the programs that support the lowest income renters in particular).

Clearly, as Greater Greater Washington takes on more affordable housing issues in the coming months, we’ve got plenty to talk about.

What does “affordable housing” mean to you, and what are your opinions on it? Can we all agree that “affordable housing” encompasses both “government-subsidized non-market housing,” and “housing affordability” in the wider market? Sound off in the comments!