Cities and towns across the U.S. are competing for the attention of technology giant Amazon, which plans to create a second headquarters somewhere in the U.S.
“Quality of life,” which typically balances a town’s amenities against the cost of living there—starting with the cost of housing—is near the top of Amazon’s wish list for its new location. Cities where the cost of housing is too high are likely to miss out on the tens of thousands of new jobs and the likely billions of dollars in new investment that will come as a result of attracting Amazon’s new digs.
In this scenario, and others like it, economic development officials across the country are finally recognizing realities that may seem self-evident to affordable housing experts: A shortage of affordable housing can come with a steep cost in missed opportunities, homelessness, stalled growth, congested roads, and young people being priced out of the area.
High-Cost Areas May Miss Out on New Jobs
In coming to terms with the cause-and-effect dynamic of landing economic drivers such as Amazon, Google, and other high-impact firms, local business leaders in many places are becoming champions of affordable housing. In the suburbs of Boston, for example—a town not known for welcoming development—the South Shore Chamber of Commerce, based in Rockland, Mass., is backing a plan to develop 44,000 new homes, condominiums, and apartments by 2030 at “a variety of price points.”
“The objective is to create the housing options that will attract the people who will drive our future economy,” according to South Shore 2030, a report co-authored by the Chamber and the South Shore Economic Development Corp. “The South Shore struggles to compete for younger workers and to retain our talented, but aging, baby boomers, in part because of housing.”
For many cities and towns, the lack of affordable housing has become a problem that threatens their economic vitality. The lack of availability of such housing is an economic barrier for 42% of cities, according to Local Economic Conditions 2017, a report issued by the National League of Cities.
When companies consider opening a new location, many now also take into account the cost of housing there. If the cost is too high, businesses may be unable to attract or retain talented staff.
“If employers see they have talent leaving because workers are priced out of the housing market, at a certain point it may become a tipping point where it makes more sense for them to try to locate somewhere else,” says Caitlin Sugrue Walter, senior director of research for the National Multifamily Housing Council.
The High Cost of Heavy Traffic
Workers who can’t afford to live near their jobs may have to live farther away and suffer through long commutes. As more workers drive longer distances, their cars clog the roadways. As the traffic slows on overstuffed roads and highways, the time it takes to commute to work lengthens even more.
Roughly 17% of the American population spends upwards of 45 minutes commuting to and from work, and these long commutes are becoming more and more common, according to the U.S. Census.
“Everyone is driving farther to get to where they need to go,” says Ethan Handelman, acting CEO of the National Housing Conference. The classic example is Aspen, Colo., where many of the ski town’s resort workers earn the relatively low wages common in service industry jobs. For many, the only housing they can afford requires a long drive on clogged and winding mountain roads. “There are people who commute three hours along single-lane roads,” says Handelman.
Many workers choose to live and work somewhere else once commuting times swell to more than 26 minutes on average, according to a study by the Brookings Institution. The longer the commuting time, the more potential residents will opt out. “Where I live is going to be determined by the time spent commuting,” says Doug Ressler, director of business intelligence for Yardi Matrix.
Longtime Residents Forced Out
Some communities recognize that they need more affordable housing when people who have grown up in the community become unable to afford a place to live after they graduate from school and look for their first rental apartment or starter home.
Despite their higher education levels compared with older generations, many millennials face limited job opportunities as a result of the slow recovery from last decade’s economic downturn. Many end up with low-paying jobs and low incomes. The median income for millennial workers is just $22,000, about half of the median income for all workers, according to the NHC.
In some areas, the problem these young people face in finding a place to live has finally made the community aware that their shortage of affordable housing may be a problem the town needs to address. “The messenger on the affordability shortage matters,” says Chris Estes, consultant at Rebuilding Together, a national nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives and homes of low-income homeowners.
Housing Cost Hurts Family Budgets
The rising cost of housing is also straining the budgets of families struggling to get by in places where the cost of housing is out of sync with typical wages and salaries.
“Ten years ago, we were talking about people spending more than 30% of their income for housing,” says Handelman. “Now, we’re talking about over 50%.”
People who have to spend more than half their income on housing are unlikely to build up enough savings to pay for any unexpected expenses. Losing a job or incurring a surprise medical expense could quickly use up a family’s reserves.
“These workers who are paying more and more for their housing may be at risk of homelessness,” says Eric Shupin, director of the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association, based in Boston. “The strain on low-income families can be unsustainable and can lead to homelessness. We have seen increases in family homeless.”
Building the Political Will to Build Housing
Many towns and cities still don’t recognize that their high housing prices are a problem. The residents of some suburbs where housing costs are high may think of “exclusivity” as a good thing. Locals and real estate agents may point to high and rising home prices as a sign that their town or neighborhood has value.
In Denver, the first warnings that the area had a shortage of affordable housing came from the city’s African-American and Latino communities. For years, the housing shortage burdened low-wage workers, making them vulnerable to economic shocks that could cause them to lose their housing. Indeed, nearly three out of four homeless individuals surveyed in Denver are working, according to the city.
More recently, however, Denver officials have recognized that the affordable housing shortage is hurting the whole community. In early 2017, Denver mayor Michael Hancock announced a five-year affordable housing plan for his city. “Now, the entire city council in Denver wants to be out in front on this issue,” says Estes.
The hope is that other cities and towns around the country will soon follow suit.