Solutions to the Housing Crisis Need to Go Beyond Affordability

by Maya Brennan

Around one in six US households pay more than half of their income to stay housed. Each year, nearly 1.5 million people use emergency shelters or transitional housing programs because maintaining a permanent residence becomes unsustainable. Stories and statistics show that the people who struggle with insecure housing include low-wage workers, the unemployed, families with children, veterans, older adults, owners, renters, and the chronically homeless. These households’ experiences with severe cost burdens and homelessness create barriers to health and economic well-being while imposing costs on public-sector agencies that address the spillover problems related to insecure housing. Solving this problem is of national importance, affecting every state and nearly every county.

At an estimated $22.5 billion, the cost of offering housing assistance to all extremely low–income households is far less than the $84.3 billion cost of maintaining the mortgage interest deduction and has far greater fiscal and nonfiscal benefits. But an effective solution needs to be bigger than affordability. A home is not just a roof and walls, but part of a neighborhood with all the amenities or disamenities the location provides. Regardless of income level, a person’s home is not suitable unless its location is.

A suitable location includes access to work, food, medical providers, schools, and other routine destinations. If people can get from home to the other central locations of their life easily, their home is “location efficient.” Building or preserving affordable homes in location-efficient places may add to the land acquisition cost, but makes it easier for residents to manage their daily needs, perhaps reducing transportation expenses as well.

Housing location plays into health as well. Living near traffic exhaust, excessive noise, and other environmental pollutants harms residents’ health, as does proximity to blight. Locations with adequate sidewalks and opportunities for physical activity generate physical and mental health benefits, including increased social capital through interactions with neighbors.

The nation’s lowest-income households need stability to reach for the next step on the ladder of opportunity. Policies that ensure basic shelter would provide this stability. But the solutions need to look beyond affordability and include location—improving neighborhood resources where housing is affordable and adding affordability to well-resourced neighborhoods. Getting from the status quo to a new reality of secure and suitable housing will require public-, nonprofit-, and private-sector problem solvers to collaborate across ideologies and backgrounds and develop effective solutions and strategies for implementing them.