“Affordable Housing” Schemes Fail Because They Don’t Advocate for Public Housing

We all know that the rents are too damn high and that our cities’ efforts at providing affordable housing have been failures. The reason they fail is because the “affordable housing” playbook does not consider housing as a public good.

A public housing building south of Paris, France, January 21, 2023. (Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt / AFP via Getty Images)

Over the last half century, the federal government has gutted public housing in this country. Searching for alternative solutions, lawmakers have put most of their energy into programs such as the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program, Housing Choice Vouchers (formerly Section 8), the Housing Trust Fund, and dozens of local and statewide programs. All of these measures attempt to provide housing for people making incomes at 60 percent of the median or below. In spite of these efforts, homelessness rates are rising, waitlists are long, black and brown communities are being displaced, and not enough people are actually gaining access to the housing they need. Furthermore, focus on low-income demographics ignores an increasingly burdened portion of the workforce: those with middle incomes.

Our nation spends more political capital and money each year, but it still falls short of the urgent demand for affordable housing that cities around the country face. We continue to make these investments while housing prices continue to rise. The problem with all of these efforts is that they fail to address the central issue of the housing crisis: commodification.

Policymakers Are Helping Corporations Rob the Public

In 2020, less than 2 percent of all rental housing units in the United States were owned by the public. The greatest share of units — well over 40 percent — were owned by limited liability corporations (LLCs) and other real estate investment corporations, with this percentage rising annually. In the national housing market, rental units are commodities — tools of for-profit real estate firms and Wall Street speculators. Meanwhile, policy makers at all levels of government sit by, watching as the commodification of the housing market continues unabated. They throw their hands up, claiming that the only way to address affordability is to simply funnel more money into current market-intervention strategies for affordable housing.

Leaving the provision of housing to the caprices of the free market leaves large swaths of Americans out in the cold. Commodified housing stock combined with some of the worst income inequality in the OECD creates a market for rentals in which the poorest will never be able to compete. Decades of neoliberal policy have created — and propped up — a system in which very low-income households are subsidized by public money that is handed over to private landlords to cover the difference that a household is unable to pay. Other popular schemes involve nonprofit housing development, which requires that some percentage of below-cost units are reserved for those living on less than 60 percent of the area median income. The deals are usually sweetened by increased zoning capacity for developers and generous tax credits. These “solutions” are plagued by long-term affordability issues, with lease expirations set anywhere between eight and fifty years.

Households with incomes between 80 percent and 120 percent of the median income for their area account for a growing proportion of those who are cost-burdened (paying more than 30 percent of their income in housing costs). Nationwide, about 11 percent of middle to high-income households experience housing cost burdens. This segment of our population is currently excluded from affordable housing and there is no policy in place to mitigate their increasing economic vulnerability. Put another way, current housing policy actively shrugs off those who do not qualify for affordable housing. To lawmakers, the housing of these workers is the job of the market.

The Rent Is Way Too Damn High

All of these policy decisions have left millions of middle-class people to the mercy of the private market. Individuals and families that are middle-income may technically be able to afford rental units that are subject to market forces, but there is a marked difference between being able to afford something over the short and long term. Scrimping on essentials month after month in order to afford rent is untenable in the long run. This is why over nineteen million households that are technically able to afford rent are nonetheless cost-burdened. Over time, the cumulative effect of extortionate rents drives up homelessness and displacement.

By focusing solely on the lowest income households, the current affordable housing discourse actively erases other segments of the population as undeserving of affordability. This policy approach is equivalent to turning our backs on neighbors and community members. When housing costs are understood to be a result of the impersonal alchemy of market forces, the provision of housing ceases to be thought of as a public good or as a right to which everyone is entitled.

Current affordable housing discourse fails to contemplate the necessary end run around market housing. Without initiatives that include nonmarket housing, affordable housing schemes will continue to fail. In the absence of nonmarket housing provision, workers will continue to endure the ruthless laws of supply and demand as the determinant of who can afford a home and who cannot. People will continue to face out of control and unpredictable rent increases, and elites will always be able to outbid workers trying to secure homes for themselves and their families. For households that make just above the arbitrary low-income threshold, what are they to do? Move far from the homes where they grew up? Commute hours per day to reach their jobs? If workers are forced to abandon cities altogether, urban centers will end up deprived of basic services like education and health care.

Decommodifying Housing

Fortunately, movements for social housing are sprouting up across the country to address these issues. These movements are bringing these questions into the public arena and challenging the current affordable housing discourse head on. These movements are demanding that housing be treated as a public good, not as a commodity.

Social housing, which is a model of publicly owned, mixed-income housing practiced around the world, has been incredibly successful at actively decommodifying the housing stock of Vienna, New Zealand, Uruguay, Toronto, and even in the United States, in the DC suburb of Montgomery County, Maryland. These are places where housing is a public good, keeping it permanently affordable forever.

In these various cities, counties, and countries, publicly owned and subsidized housing is not just for the very poor, it is for everyone. Because the income ceiling for Vienna’s nonmarket housing applicants is set quite high, over 85 percent of the city’s population qualifies for permanently affordable and decommodified housing. This increases general affordability because it lowers the private sector rents by forcing free-market housing to compete with housing that is provided as a public good. Landlords must lower their rates accordingly to attract renters.

Cities and states across the United States from Maine to Hawaii are beginning to explore social housing programs of their own. There is an increasing interest in creating public housing stocks available to a much wider range of the population, and work toward the decommodification of our local and national rental housing stocks. California’s Assembly Bill 2053, the California Social Housing Act, made it through the state assembly in 2022. Hawaii’s ALOHA Homes Act continues to work its way through the state legislature. Similar bills are being considered in more rural states. This legislative session, Maine will hear an Act to Establish the Maine Community Housing Development Authority.

At a local level, housing advocates, House Our Neighbors! in Seattle, are just weeks away from a special election in which voters will decide, through ballot Initiative 135, whether or not to create a citywide public developer of social housing, making it the second locality in the country to do so.

These movements are just the beginning of what the United States could do to solve the affordable housing crisis marring our cities. To undo decades of privatization, we have to put national energy into the housing movement and throw our support to efforts in California, Hawaii, Maine, Seattle, and beyond. We can make housing a public good.

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Camille Gix is a graduate student studying social policy analysis and housing studies at the University of Washington. She is also a member of the steering committee for Initiative 135.

Tiffani McCoy is the advocacy director for Real Change and the campaign cochair for Seattle Initiative 135 working to bring social housing to the city.

Maine State Representative Grayson Lookner represents House District 113 (part of Portland), is a Democratic Socialists of America member, and was a staff member on Bernie Sanders’s 2016 and 2020 presidential runs.

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