The Common Good
February 2007

Affordable Housing: A Place to Call Home?

by Jill Suzanne Shook | February 2007

Affordable housing is vital for working people- and for the health of our communities.

Jack, a father of four young children, works three jobs: full-time as youth pastor at an Armenian church making $40,000 a year, part-time at Fuller Seminary’s African-American Church Studies Program, and as owner of a small business. Even with these jobs, Jack and his wife so far have been unable to purchase a home within a reasonable distance from his church.

“Through Pasadena Neighborhood Housing Services, I qualify for their First Time Home Buyer Program,” Jack explains. “I’ve attended the classes and will receive assistance—if we find a home within the required price range.”

Ana Martinez has found affordable housing and it’s changed her life. “I feel like I’m in heaven living here,” says Ana of her housing complex—formerly decrepit apartments that with the help of HUD funds were renovated into pleasant, affordable housing. “In the run-down one-bedroom apartment where my daughter and I were before, the rent increased every two months for two and a half years,” Ana says. “Ninety percent of our income was being spent on housing!”

“Now I pay much less for a beautiful two-bedroom apartment. When neighbors are home, they leave their front doors open. When I walk by, they ask if there’s anything I need,” says Ana.

HARD-WORKING low- and moderate-income workers like Ana and Jack cannot make ends meet without some kind of housing subsidy, be it from relatives, tax credits, or tax breaks. In fact, few people stop to think about how the wealthiest Americans enjoy the largest housing “subsidy” in the country through mortgage interest deductions.

To solve this complex crisis we must apply a broad array of solutions. Some employers in California provide incentives for employees to organize and show up at the city council in support of laws that would provide more price choices in the housing market. Examples include ordinances that allow homeowners to build second units—so-called “granny flats”—in their back yard; or density bonuses and inclusionary housing ordinances that mandate lower-priced units be included in every new development. (Pasadena’s ordinance requires that 15 percent of all new housing with 10 units or more be affordable.) In Pasadena we mobilized churches throughout the city to support such laws.

One developer has built luxury affordable homes on hospital and university land and is now breaking ground on Santa Barbara’s school district land. The homes are sold, but not the land—thus making the homes more affordable. This model takes land off the speculative market—a glimpse of the biblical jubilee, God’s “real estate legislation” to alleviate poverty (Leviticus 25).

Universities have a history of providing housing for faculty or some kind of housing allowance. But low-wage earners rarely get such breaks. One notable exception: The Broetje Orchards in eastern Washington—one of the largest private apple growers in America—took equity from their business and built 133 single family homes and garden apartments for their employees. The homes are rented at a price that is low enough for employees to save and purchase their own homes.

Ana’s work helps vulnerable members of her community. Jack longs to put down roots in the community where he already hosts a popular TV show about local issues and where he can use his faith and unique African-Armenian heritage to demonstrate how Jesus has broken down racial and economic walls. Let’s use all the God-given talent we have to figure out how to keep low- and moderate-income people like Ana and Jack in our communities.

Jill Suzanne Shook is the editor and a writer of Making Housing Happen: Faith-based Affordable Housing Models (Chalice Press) and coordinates Pasadena Affordable Housing Alliance.

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