Julio Alves: ‘Northampton is becoming a city for higher income households’

Published: 1/19/2020 7:01:12 PM
Modified: 1/19/2020 7:00:13 PM

Imagine this: A Northampton where over half the residents live in attractive, sustainably designed, mixed-income public housing surrounded by parks, playgrounds, gardens, bike shops and car-sharing programs.

On average, residents spend 30% of their income on rent and have enough left over for food, clothing, child and health care and the pursuit of happiness.

As the stunning Mayor’s Work Group on Panhandling Study Report confirms, this is not how we currently live in Northampton, where housing has become unaffordable to low and median income renters and buyers, more than half of whom spend upwards of 35% of their income on housing. A single person has to earn over $44,600 to afford the median housing cost ($1,116) without becoming housing cost burdened, which Housing and Urban Development defines as spending more than 30% of income on housing.

And that’s only for as long as current rents remain stable, which seems unlikely given that rental units costing more than $2,000 a month have increased by 600% since 2010.

Those most impacted by Northampton’s rising rents are, as always, among the most vulnerable populations (racial and ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, the elderly, minimum wage earners), who have the lowest incomes in the city and rent at disproportionately high rates.

They are especially exposed because renters in Northampton, as in the country as a whole, are more housing-burdened than owners and the Housing Authority, the last defense against homelessness, is oversubscribed. Predictably, Northampton is increasingly becoming a city for higher income households, which does not make for a strong, diverse city.

These trends apply nationally. As the Working Group report states, “there is no state in the country where a household earning the minimum wage can afford a one- or two-bedroom apartment at fair market rate.”

Despite localized efforts at housing creation — like Northampton’s Live 155, Lumberyard Apartments and affordable housing developments at Village Hill — the country has been losing subsidized housing units at a rate of 10,000 a year since the 1970s, the last decade in which we saw an adequate housing stock. As a nation, we are 7.2 million units short for low-income renters.

Housing all citizens comfortably, sustainably and affordably is neither a luxury nor a fantasy, as Vienna, Austria, has so brilliantly shown us. Due to the city’s progressive planning and design, 62% of Viennese live in mixed-income public housing by choice, enjoying the kind of amenities I described above, and pay on average 27% of their income on rent. That’s quite unlike residents of major American cities, who often pay upwards of 50% of their income on rent.

In Vienna, the lower your income, the lower the percentage of it you spend on housing. In the United States, the opposite is true: the lower your income, the greater the percentage of it you spend on housing, so that 80.2% of households with incomes under $10,000 are housing-burdened, whereas only 0.6% of those with incomes over $100,000 are so.

The cost — never mind the quality — of housing is a critical reason so many Americans have such a low quality of life, whereas the Viennese have a very high quality of life. For 10 consecutive years, the Mercer Quality of Living Survey, which measures quality of life in cities across the globe, has named Vienna the best city to live in. The United States makes its debut at No. 34 with San Francisco, a city that has become a magnet for the rich but where nonetheless 27% of the residents are severely housing burdened (meaning that they spend more than 50% of their income on rent).

In partnership with local and regional affordable housing developers, the city of Northampton has made admirable strides in expanding its affordable housing stock. It’s not enough, however. Municipalities alone cannot solve the housing problem and we know from its abysmal failure over the past few decades that the private sector is certainly not going to do it. Federal policies have created the problem, and it will take federal policies to solve it.

Going forward, we must get housing security on all upcoming local, state and national election platforms. The goal? Ten million new affordable units in 10 years. How do we pay for them? By revoking the Trump tax giveaway to the rich and using the windfall for housing. Or by paying for it in the same way we pay for pointless, injurious and misguided wars.

The goal for Northampton? To stay on course with a smart, sustainable housing policy that makes us the best little city in America.

Julio Alves lives in Northampton.

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