As a recent Herald-Leader editorial states, the city’s Office of Affordable Housing, under Rick McQuady, has made a good start in its first two years.
But we should not be lulled into complacency or become satisfied with the rate of progress.
Enabling the building and rehabbing of 400 or 500 housing units a year is a good use of public funds. But continued progress at that rate will not get us where we need to be.
That 400 or 500 units is about the number of affordable-housing units we lose a year, according to a CZB Consultancy study commissioned by the city in 2014. Roughly 15,000 low-income households need housing in Lexington.
Of them, about 9,000 now receive assistance or are accommodated by the private market. This leaves about 6,000 households, most of which include at least one worker, unable to find decent housing at rates considered affordable. Consequently, they either overpay or live in substandard conditions.
Wages (for less-skilled workers, at least) have not kept up with rising housing costs. In Lexington, in 1990, according to the CZB study, 88 percent of all apartments and rental units were affordable for people making the then-minimum wage without spending more than 30 percent of their income.
But in 2010, only 17 percent of minimum-wage earners could find housing for 30 percent of their income, the federal standard of affordability. The city’s current draft five-year Consolidated Plan defines the effects of our affordable housing shortage in even starker terms: about 18,000 households pay greater than 50 percent of their income for housing, and most of these households are at or below 30 percent of area median income.
However worthwhile and effective the programs funded with this federal money are, they are on much too small a scale in relation to the size of our affordable housing problem. Moreover, according to an Aug. 29 Herald-Leader article, the city’s population is expected to grow by more than 81,000 over the next 20 years, or 26 percent.
The Mozaic Community Planning Study, “2016-2021: Analysis of impediments to Fair Housing Choice,” commissioned by the city to meet a requirement of its HUD Community Development Block Grant application, was recently released. It calls for the city, in collaboration with the private and non-profit sectors, to develop “a long-term strategy that would serve as an ongoing affordable-housing vision and that would set measurable short and long-term goals for housing production, preservation and continued affordability.”
It also concludes that the city needs to spend more of its own money on affordable housing. This is all the more important, since federal funds have been decreasing over recent decades.
Yes, addressing our affordable housing gap will cost a considerable amount of money, but failing to do so will cost much more in both monetary and human terms. Let’s dedicate ourselves to building aggressively on the progress we have begun to make in the last three years.
If we fail to do so, we will be faced with a worsening affordable-housing crisis that will create increased homelessness, cause many people to suffer unnecessarily and produce an avoidable drag on social services and the city’s economy.
Rick Clewett is chair of the Housing Justice Project for the Central Kentucky Council of Peace and Justice.