Straight Talk: Affordable Housing is a Keystone to Sustainable Communities
The need for affordable housing rightfully comes up constantly in sustainability circles. In nature, keystone species are those super influencers around which all other life revolves. When the wolves were extirpated from Yellowstone, there was systems collapse. Affordable housing is like this. It’s essential to the ecosystem of whole communities. Given lack of population growth in our region, every home matters even more to sustaining neighborhoods that are enriched by a diverse and inclusive mix of income, race, and age. The SWPA Sustainability Goals & Indicators Report notes the average value of owner-occupied homes in the region has increased by 22 percent since 2005 and continues to rise. The average local fair market rent has risen 29 percent and also is following a steadily upward trend. Rising values and costs push against household income and wage disparities, placing neighborhoods at risk. The situation is especially acute in Pittsburgh where worries of gentrification cause communities to focus on preserving and expanding affordable housing to ensure that everyone can benefit from development. Aside from the challenges of building new affordable housing in growing markets, special efforts to safeguard existing affordable homes (for both owners and renters) are a big piece of the equation.
In February, informed by his Affordable Housing Task Force, Mayor Peduto issued a series of Executive Orders to preserve and expand affordable housing. This excellent set of best practices is instructive for all southwestern PA as the region embraces the importance of preserving and creating inclusive and socially diverse, mixed-income communities. The policies include a new longtime owner occupant protection (“LOOP”) program (i.e. anti-gentrification program) that provides City residents with protection from rapid property tax increases that disproportionately harm elderly residents and those residents living on fixed incomes. Additional actions call for, among others, evaluation of the potential for increased homestead exemptions for longtime owner occupants, tangled title intervention and prevention services, and tenant protection provisions for residential development projects that receive public financial support. Such policies and programs have an important role in helping to keep residents in their homes even while the neighborhood changes around them. For renters, extra care is needed across the region as 82 percent of renters with incomes under $20,000 spent 30 percent or more of that money on housing in 2014. Illustrating inequities, nearly 61 percent of African Americans in the Pittsburgh region rent their housing compared to fewer than 17 percent of white residents.
As our region continues through the ups and downs of economic and demographic shifts, affordable housing is one of the central glues to ensuring sustainable communities.