How Affordable Housing Is Like My Skincare Routine

ETA May 2, 2017: Strong Towns is republishing this blog post this week. I made some edits for clarity, and added links to more sources. The Strong Towns post, with nice photos and better SEO, is here.

For, presumably, my sins in a past life, I am cursed with adult acne. It sucks, it’s gross, it looks bad, it never really goes away, and it hurts. My skin is basically a city wrangling with housing production, which can also be described as sucking, being gross, looking bad, not going away, and hurting.

Stay with me.

Here is what I have to use to keep my face from breaking out extremely and regularly: oil cleanser, cream cleanser, toner, eye cream, straight tea tree oil, retinol cream, hyaluronic acid, rose oil, one of those customized Curology formulas, heavy-duty benzoyl peroxide cream, bougie coconut oil, moisturizer, and SPF. I use a hardcore peel once a week and some chill masks on occasion. Every few days, I use a scrub. At night, I use a night cream or balm.

Generally, all of this works to prevent and treat breakouts, especially if I wash my face twice a day. But: My skin still flares up. It’s not a foolproof routine. (If things get really raw, I have backups! I use a layer of buffering lotion, then drying lotion for spot treatments.) It is better than my previous routines which, until I figured out that I needed to do a lot to keep my skin from being so awful, was extremely basic: cleanser, maybe toner, probably lotion, all loaded with comedogenic ingredients and applied inconsistently. My breakouts were gnarly, and seemingly hopeless.

American housing policy sucks because we’ve been using the bare minimum of things (I would hesitate to call them solutions) to both increase production and create affordability. Obviously, this is failing. We have an extremely broad housing crisis with regional and local sub-variations, and a level of discourse about gentrification and displacement that is woefully misinformed at best, if well-intentioned. At worst, it maliciously affects actual policy by pitting the unicorn 100-percent-affordable projects against market-rate housing.

Ergo, American housing policy is the equivalent of my former poorly considered, one-note, shitty skincare routine. Maybe if we started using literally everything at our disposal—publicly available financing, building more housing (both legally-defined affordable and market-rate), more vouchers, knocking down single-family zoning, better planning transitoriented development, tamping down spatial mismatch and regional sprawl, land trusts, filtering (a long-game result of building more)—we would see enough marginal improvement over time that in four or five years, we could say that we are doing a reasonably decent job providing housing for everyone. I do not like putting upward of a dozen products on my face two times a day. But because I’ve been doing that for several years, there are fewer weeping sores on my face, which I find worthwhile.

I’ve had this post sitting in drafts for forever. Fortunately, Governing wrote an extremely good piece about the affordable housing crisis that hits a lot of the points I often bring up when I discuss this. The following conflict is really important to me, having witnessed equally nasty affordable housing squalls in D.C., San Francisco, and now Cleveland. They’re alike, but they’re not, but they are:

Even the usefulness of the term “affordable housing” is a subject of debate. “There are really two types of affordable housing problems,” says University of Washington economist Jacob Vigdor. Housing experts typically describe people as “cost burdened” when they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. But the real problem for most of them, in Vigdor’s view, is not the price of the housing. Their trouble is that they are not earning enough money to buy it. “Cities like Detroit have an ‘affordable housing’ problem because so many people living there have an income problem,” says Vigdor. Subsidized housing can help these people, but to say their problem is one of “affordable housing” is to misunderstand what is going on.

Real affordable housing failure is different. It exists primarily in the more affluent cities of the Northeast and the West Coast — places like Los Angeles. “You’ve got the grand old cities,” Vigdor says, “where the price of housing is way above the price of land and what it costs to build a unit.” These are cities where supply has been constrained by zoning and regulations, with the result that the market is not working properly. The fact that people use the same language to talk about two very different situations further complicates efforts to find solutions.

In this metaphorical context: My skincare routine is not exactly your skincare routine. Cleveland’s housing issues are not exactly San Francisco’s or D.C.’s or Pittsburgh’s or St. Louis’, though some parts of each of those regional issues may look like each other. I use 10% benzoyl peroxide on my face every day, but that could give someone else a rash; however, maybe a lower-dose benzoyl peroxide treatment every other day would help someone with more sensitive skin! That is not to say that you should think your city is so exceptional that only it can solve its housing woes—we still need to be looking toward best practices. The only one-size-fits-all solution that I can see is to build more, and even that will have regional nuances in terms of what gets a tax abatement, what uses what affordable housing credits, what gets built near transit, what gets held up in approvals, etc. (None of which, by the way, is an excuse not to build more.)

Another complexity to the term “affordable housing” is that there’s capital-A Affordable, and affordable. I use Capital-A Affordable to refer to housing built with public—typically federal—subsidies. These can be great projects. They can also be achingly, heartbreakingly expensive. But they’re capital-A Affordable because they’re using funds that legally define them as affordable. On the flip, there’s affordable housing, which is conceptual. Typically, that’s the no-more-than-30-percent-of-your-income definition. But in my experience, “affordable” is so subjective because where you live can be a lifestyle choice, and “affordable” is conceptualized very, very differently in different places. (It’s why I was like, “What is money?” when I moved to Cleveland from San Francisco, and why it was extremely easy for me to justify buying a house, even though my mortgage payment is higher than the rent for my former apartment.) I think this is a big reason that housing discussions often derail so quickly. It is damn near impossible to get plebian discussions to unite around definitions of “affordable,” because it’s not common to distinguish between legally sanctioned, publicly developed, publicly subsidized, capital-A Affordable projects and whatever’s getting built privately. It is, however, common—at least in my neighborhood—to distinguish yourself as a more morally correct person by opposing new housing because it’s too new, or too “luxury” (remember, “luxury” is a marketing term, not a legal definition), or too “unaffordable.” But slamming new housing as bad on the grounds that it’s “unaffordable to the majority of the neighborhood” doesn’t do anything but froth up an attitude that can further constrain supply.

Also worth noting:

In 2015, 29 percent of American homeowners with mortgages spent more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Among renters, that number rises to nearly 50 percent. As bad as this is, it actually represents an improvement. The percentage of people who are cost-burdened by housing has actually fallen over the past five years as new housing development, which stalled during the Great Recession, has begun to catch up with demand. But that’s a very small step. According to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, the national median asking price for new apartments in 2015 was $1,381, a price well above what the typical renter earning $35,000 a year could afford. What has been missing is new housing for middle- and working-class city residents.

So I have a lot of various dermalogical inflictions. Deep, painful cystic acne is the primary one. I also have a lot of scarring and redness, mostly thanks to years of deep, painful cystic acne. I have to treat it all. I have products to treat it all. While I do think that the most important thing to do right now in nearly every city is to get more of what’s in demand to the market, the missing-middle housing question hits design, policy, and financing, and it’s something that you can’t forget to work on. Redness on my skin isn’t the worst thing, but it often means there’s inflammation lurking, and I have to take care of it. Missing-middle housing is more important than red spots on my face, but it occupies a difficult sector in between fully automated luxury condos and housing built with tax credits, so it’s often forgotten about. (Much of the faffing over missing-middle housing can probably be attributed to Opticos’ marketing prowess more than cities actually reckoning with the need to, you know, build more of it.) Anyway, you have to treat all the problems. Anecdotally, anyone I know fighting for more market-rate housing (regardless of its level of luxury attributes) is also fighting just as hard for more affordable, subsidized—capital-A affordable—housing.

And then:

In Bernstein’s view, true affordability involves much more than the price of shelter. It includes, most important, transportation. In most cities, the affordable housing strategy most homeowners and renters use is basically “drive until you qualify.” Housing prices drop as distance from the city increases. As a result, homeowners and renters keep moving further out until they find a place where they afford to live. Unfortunately, they nearly always underestimate the cost of transportation. “Very low-income people can easily spend 80 percent of their incomes on the combined cost of housing and transportation,” Bernstein says. “Even moderate-income people who are stuck with no mass transit can end up spending as much on transportation as on housing.”

I don’t have a face-product metaphor here. I just want to scream into the void a little bit about how transportation was only mentioned in one graf in the bottom third of this otherwise excellent piece. Your affordable housing means nothing if people can’t get to it, or if they can’t get to their job, or their kid’s daycare, or the grocery store. I am pretty well done with the community development industrial complex in Cleveland, which is extremely ready to talk about housing and job access but extremely cagey when it comes to getting on board with advocating for better transit connections. Never talk about housing, or land use, without talking about transportation.

Governing also makes some thoughtful points about the YIMBY movement (including the zinger, “YIMBYs exercise more power over the imagination of journalists than they do over the actions of elected officials.”). I could write a dissertation on YIMBY, but I’m going to pass on that opportunity. You can read my previously made thoughtful points about the YIMBY conference last year if you’d like.

Some final points on the nexus of skincare/housing, to keep this party going:

  • I modify the products that I use. I’ve tried stuff that makes my skin worse, but I also try stuff that ends up making my skin better. I wouldn’t know this if I didn’t, you know, try. So many conversations about housing are really, really fraught with risk-aversion (at best) and bigotry (at worst). But you can’t etch a housing production strategy in stone. It’s going to have to change as the conditions of your city change.
  • How much money do you think I spend on skincare? I have not done that math and I do not want to. Shit’s expensive. But expensive-proactive, which has legitimately brought me clearer skin, is better than expensive-reactive, which doesn’t fix the root cause. It is extremely expensive to build housing today. It only gets more expensive to build housing tomorrow. Any housing production/affordability strategy needs to be proactive in addition to intersectional.
  • No product is a silver bullet. If there was something that would make it so that I could ditch my skincare routine, I would pay…a lot for it. But I have tried most things out there, and the bummer of the whole thing is that the best strategy is routinely washing my face with products that work. That’s why funding sports stadiums (or any megaproject, really) won’t make cities more affordable for people, no matter how many weak community benefits agreements the cartel franchise might promise you.

All that said, none of this should distract from the fact that the true problem—the true enemy—is poverty. Gentrification ain’t so bad when you can afford it. Displacement looks like more of a choice (call it “social displacement”) than an inevitability if your money works where you want to be. More housing, and the attendant increase in housing and flexing of policies and funding that will get us more housing, will help. But the affordable housing crisis has spared no county because it’s fundamentally a problem of concentrated poverty. Governing, and literally anyone else that thinks about this for more than the duration of an angry tweet, concludes that

And s/o to the Shelterforce piece, “Why We Must Build.” which is my favorite thing linked here. That’s probably the only thing you should read, if you only want to read one thing and haven’t read that thing already.

One Comment on “How Affordable Housing Is Like My Skincare Routine”

  1. dr2chase says:

    Doesn’t fit your metaphor, but I’d add to the mix, local education funding. It’s one of the legs of the opposition-to-affordable/denser-housing stool; as long as education is mostly funded by property taxes, bringing more people into town brings their children brings their education costs.

    Property-tax-funded education also contributes to inequitable access to decent education, so there’s other good reasons besides removing anti-density excuses.

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