Tuesday, August 01, 2023

Quality Housing for All

Quality Housing for All is Possible
Nicholas Johnson
The Gazette, August 1, 2023, p. A 6

“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for [their] health and well-being . . . including . . . housing . . .” declares the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If you find the Bible more persuasive, many versions include in Matthew 25, “I was homeless and you gave me a room.”

The Iowa Code provides equivalent rights for farm animals. And yet 1.6 billion people not only don’t have the housing Jesus called for and the U.N. considers a human right, they’re lacking the housing rights of Iowa’s animals.

Two million U.S. housing units were judged to be “extremely inadequate.” There are around 500,000 homeless people each evening.

U.S. agencies and organizations also measure “housing insecurity” (e.g., high costs, poor quality, unstable neighborhoods or overcrowding). For renters the percentages with housing insecurity range from 30 percent (Florida) to 17 percent (Wyoming). In Iowa it’s 23 percent.

It’s not like Iowa’s doing nothing. The state, county and city governments have programs. Vouchers, affordable housing in new developments (mixed income, inclusionary zoning), rezoning, housing trust funds, government owned and operated and “housing first” for the homeless.

But a conflict of goals is bound to occur when housing programs look to profit-maximizing capitalist landlords to provide housing for all at prices that leave everyone with enough left over for nutrition, healthcare, transportation and other basic needs.

Where might we look for alternatives?

When I served on the Iowa City School Board, we wanted new ideas. With 16,000 U.S. school districts, we set aside meeting time to discuss what Education Week was reporting and other countries were doing.

Iowa’s governmental units could do the same, researching others’ housing solutions. Take Vienna for example.

The focus of Vienna’s “social housing” is not on giving money to the poor, passed through to landlords. It’s on construction of a livable, lovable city and society – connected with cheap, frequent, fast public transportation. The Viennese believe such a city requires upscale, architecturally attractive cheap housing for everyone. Housing that mixes middle class with the poor. Housing conveniently located in neighborhoods with a range of facilities and services, such as a community center, swimming pool, dental clinic, library, post office, restaurant. [Photo credit: wikimedia.org/commons]

Anyone earning under about $80,000 (U.S.) can apply if they’ve had a single Vienna address for two years. The financial requirements are such that 80 percent of Vienna’s residents choose to rent. The U.S. defines “affordable” as 30 percent of before-tax income. (Landlords extract more from nearly half of all renters.) Vienna defines “affordable” as closer to 20 percent of after-tax income. No one’s excluded, and no one’s evicted if their income increases. The homeless are provided “housing first” facilities.

When people pay less, but get quality, inclusive housing they have less finance-related stress – and more money left over to live life and boost the local economy.

We could do it here. In fact, we’ve tried in California, Maryland and Washington.

Why not Iowa?

Nicholas Johnson believes the U.N. and Jesus would like Vienna’s housing. Contact: mailbox@nicholasjohnson.org

Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations, Dec. 10, 1948, Article 25, https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights (“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”)

Matthew 25. Numerous sources from Google search: “Which versions of the Bible include ‘I was homeless and you gave me a room’ in Matthew 25?” For example, “Matthew 25:35-40,” You Version, Bible.com, https://www.bible.com/bible/97/MAT.25.34,35,36 (“I was homeless and you gave me a room”)

Animal rights. Code of Iowa, Sec. 717B.3(1)(d), https://www.legis.iowa.gov/docs/ico/chapter/717B.pdf (“1. A person commits animal neglect when the person owns or has custody of an animal, confines that animal, and fails to provide the animal with any of the following conditions for the animal’s welfare: . . .

d. Ventilated shelter reasonably sufficient to provide adequate protection from the elements and weather conditions suitable for the . . . animal so as to maintain the animal in a state of good health . . . . The shelter must protect the animal from wind, rain, snow, or sun and have adequate bedding to provide reasonable protection against cold and dampness. . ..”)

1.6 billion without adequate housing. “First-ever United Nations Resolution on Homelessness,” Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations, March 9, 2020, https://www.un.org/development/desa/dspd/2020/03/resolution-homelessness/ (“A serious violation of human dignity, homelessness has become a global problem. It is affecting people of all ages from all walks of life, in both developed and developing countries.

Globally, 1.6 billion people worldwide live in inadequate housing conditions, with about 15 million forcefully evicted every year, according to UN-Habitat, which has noted an alarming rise in homelessness in the last 10 years. Young people are the age group with the highest risk of becoming homeless.”)

Adequate housing in U.S. Housing insecurity in the United States https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Housing_insecurity_in_the_United_States (Chart: “Rented households facing housing insecurity (%)” High: Florida (30%), low: Wyoming (17%). Iowa (23%). “The American Housing Survey, using a standard of “extremely inadequate” housing, found (averaging numbers from 2005, 2007 and 2009) 2 million units to be “extremely inadequate” (1,896,890 units).”

U.S. Homelessness. “How many homeless people are in the US? What does the data miss?” USA Facts, May 23, 2023, https://usafacts.org/articles/how-many-homeless-people-are-in-the-us-what-does-the-data-miss/ (“More than half a million people experienced homelessness in America last year. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) counted around 582,000 Americans experiencing homelessness in 2022. That’s about 18 per 10,000 people in the US, up about 2,000 people from 2020.”)

U.S. school districts. Imed Bouchrika, “101 American School Statistics: 2023; Data, Trends & Predictions,” https://research.com/education/american-school-statistics (“The U.S. is currently home to 16,800 school districts.”)

Vienna. Homelessness. “Homelessness in Austria,” Policies & Strategies, Feantsa Country Fiche, 2017, https://www.feantsa.org/download/austria-20178599194934673684360.pdf (“Vienna and Upper Austria have adopted an integrated program on homelessness, covering prevention, accommodation and reintegration. The program in Vienna is known as the Vienna Integration Program for Homeless People (Vienna Multi-Stage Scheme). Housing First approaches are being implemented.”)

Viennese incomes. "Average Salary in Vienna, Austria," SalaryExpert, undated, https://www.salaryexpert.com/salary/area/austria/vienna ("51,823" -- $57,347 US)

"The average salary and minimum wage in Austria," Expatica, March 4, 2023, https://www.expatica.com/at/working/employment-law/minimum-wage-austria-89338/ ("The median salary in Austria is about €2,182 per month. However, the median income for full-time employees working all year round in 2020 was €40,415 [$44,723 U.S.] for women and €46,292 [$51,227 U.S.] for men. Normally, this includes the basic salary, bonuses, annual leave payments, and sick pay.")

"Cost of Living in Vienna," Numbeo, 2023, https://www.numbeo.com/cost-of-living/in/Vienna • ("A family of four estimated monthly costs are 3,483.6$ (3,153.1€) without rent (using our estimator). • A single person estimated monthly costs are 1,008.7$ (913.0€) without rent. • Vienna is 33.7% less expensive than New York (without rent, see our cost of living index). • Rent in Vienna is, on average, 75.1% lower than in New York.")

Transportation. “The Public Transport System,” Visiting Vienna, https://www.visitingvienna.com/transport/public/ (“The public transport system is definitely one of Vienna’s good points. Cheap, frequent, fast, clean, efficient, and rarely overcrowded.”)

Vienna; Excerpts from Francesca Mari, “It Might Look Like Vienna; Soaring real estate markets have created a worldwide housing crisis. What can we learn from a city that has largely avoided it?” Magazine, New York Times, May 26, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/05/23/magazine/vienna-social-housing.html

Note: I found this to be one of the best sources regarding the Vienna social housing program. Rather than trying to link each of these excerpts to the precise language in two of the column’s paragraphs they are simply listed in the order in which they appear in this New York Times Magazine article – thereby making them easier to find.

Questions the reader may have about any of my assertions should be answered by one or more of them.

Conversion from Austria Euros to U.S. dollars with ExchangeRate.com, https://www.exchangerate.com/currency-exchange-rate-cities/vienna.html

Viennese law dictates that rents in public housing can increase only with inflation, and only when the year’s inflation exceeds 5 percent. By the time she retired in 2007, Eva’s rent was only 8 percent of her income. Because her husband was earning 4,000 euros a month, their rent amounted to 3.6 percent of their incomes combined.

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In Vienna, a whopping 80 percent of residents qualify for public housing, and once you have a contract, it never expires, even if you get richer. Housing experts believe that this approach leads to greater economic diversity within public housing — and better outcomes for the people living in it.

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49 percent of American renters — 21.6 million people — are cost-burdened, paying landlords more than 30 percent of their pretax income, and the percentage can be even higher in expensive cities. In New York City, the median renter household spends a staggering 36 percent of its pretax income on rent.

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In Vienna, 43 percent of all housing is insulated from the market, meaning the rental prices reflect costs or rates set by law — not “what the market will bear” or what a person with no other options will pay.

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The mean gross household income in Vienna is 57,700 euros [$63,151 US] a year, but any person who makes under 70,000 euros [$77,462 US] qualifies for a [social housing] unit. Once in, you never have to leave. It doesn’t matter if you start earning more.

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80 percent of all households in Vienna choose to rent.

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Vienna prioritizes subsidizing construction, while the United States prioritizes subsidizing people, with things like housing vouchers. One model focuses on supply, the other on demand. Vienna’s choice illustrates a fundamental economic reality, which is that a large-enough supply of social housing offers a market alternative that improves housing for all.

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[T]he average waiting time to get a [social housing unit] is about two years (at any given moment there are 12,000 or so people on the waiting list, and each year about 10,000 or more people are housed). Vienna residents — anyone who has had a fixed address for two years, whether they are a citizen or not — may apply, and applications are evaluated based on need.

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City housing officials point out that having wealthier tenants in ["social housing"] helps thwart the problems that accompany concentrated poverty, creating a more stable, healthier environment for everyone. Unlike in the United States, where public housing is only for the poorest . . . the relative integration of ["social housing"] means that they are not stigmatized.

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[One social housing project] housed 5,000 people in 1,400 apartments. These apartments were coveted. “It had two central laundries, two communal bathing facilities with tubs and showers, a dental clinic, maternity clinic, a health-insurance office, library, youth hostel, post office, and a pharmacy and 25 other commercial premises, including a restaurant and the offices and showroom of the BEST, the city-run furnishing and interior-design advice center,” Blau writes. Now fewer than 3,000 tenants live [there] — not because it’s undesirable but because living standards have improved and, in response, Vienna has allotted tenants more space . . . [combining] some of the units to create larger ones.

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Vienna has succeeded in curbing the craving to own. It has done it by driving down the price of land through rezoning and rent control.

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Living in Alt-Erlaa, Willie enjoyed access to seven rooftop swimming pools, seven indoor swimming pools, tennis courts, gyms and acclaimed art. When the rest of the delegation joined us, he led us toward one of his favorite aspects of the buildings: two murals in the lobby of the second building meditating on the role of the news media and labor in society.

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The spiral of overvaluation in housing, which makes the housing-haves rich and the have-nots desperately poor, has brought us to a point where only something radical can solve it. The problem with housing in the United States is that it has been locked in as a means of building wealth, and building wealth is irreconcilable with affordability. The housing crisis in the United States is proof. Even in 2017, before the pandemic, around 113 million Americans — some 35 percent of the nation’s population — were living with a serious housing problem, such as physically deficient housing, burdensome costs or no housing at all, notes Alex F. Schwartz, an urban-studies professor at the New School.

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The United States government intervenes heavily in the housing market. It’s just a two-tiered system, as Gail Radford, the historian, argues. There’s generous support for affluent homeowners and deliberately insufficient support for the lowest-income households. In 2017, the United States spent $155 billion on tax breaks to homeowners and investors in rental housing and mortgage-revenue bonds, more than three times the $50 billion spent on affordable housing.

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Though “social housing” represented a large initial government outlay, Vienna’s social housing is now self-sustaining. Guess how much of the residents’ salary goes toward the program. One percent. Social housing drives down rents in the private market by as much as 5 percent. Vouchers may appear cheaper in the short term, but directly financing well-regulated public and limited-profit construction is the only way to mitigate speculation and hedge against ever-increasing housing costs. In 2020, New York and California spent $377 and $248 per capita, respectively, in housing development, while Vienna spent just $124 — and approximately half of Vienna’s spending is on low-interest financing that will be repaid and then re-lent.

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Local social-housing programs, many of them inspired by Vienna, are underway in Montgomery County, Md.; Seattle; and California. And they have a long legacy in New York, which built 66,000 affordable apartments and 69,000 limited-profit co-op apartment units from 1955 to 1981.

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Seattle. “A place to live, a place to grow; Providing housing and supportive services for people with low incomes,” Seattle Housing Authority, 2023, https://www.seattlehousing.org/

Montgomery County, Maryland. “Housing,” Montgomery Planning, July 19, 2023, https://montgomeryplanning.org/planning/housing/

California. “Five More Jurisdictions Designated Prohousing,” California Department of Housing and Development, 2023, https://www.hcd.ca.gov/

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