Affordable Housing

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Affordable Housing

Affordable housing


Despite record numbers of new home starts and record homeownership rates, the quest for affordable housing remains elusive for many Americans, particularly those in the lowest income quartiles. Indeed, in the first years of this new millennium, the shortfall in supply of public and assisted housing for the nation's very poorest people stands at 3.3 million housing units.1 Moreover, according to the National Association of Home Builders, one in four households, or about 28 million American families, spend more than 30 percent of their household income, a federal benchmark for affordability, on housing.

But beyond evaluating this issue through the lens of supply and demand, what are the essential qualitative concerns that should define the agenda for filling the affordability gap? Even with heightened awareness about the links between buildings and health and evolving spatial needs over time, an agenda lacking a vision and commitment to green and adaptable affordable housing is out of step with current knowledge and trends. The burdens associated with substandard housing, and with exposure to environmental health risks, are disproportionately carried by this nation's poor. Current data shows an alarming 20.3 million asthma sufferers in the United States, and more than 5,000 people dying from asthma per year.

The nation's low-income population endures the highest rates of asthma, with many of the known and suspected triggers correlated with its housing.

In New York City, an estimated 38 percent of homeless children suffer from asthma.5 More generally, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finds indoor air pollution to be one of the top five environmental risks to public health.6 Part of the responsibility for impaired indoor air quality is associated with building materials.7 For example, approximately 70 percent of formaldehyde— a known carcinogen and asthma trigger—is used in building materials, serving as a binder for engineered wood products, carpet, and insulation, among other materials.8 This statistic is rarely known by architects and designers who specify materials or by contractors who build, and rarer still is it known by the residents whose indoor environment is largely defined by the materials with which it is built. Yet, with no current labeling requirements and the appeal of inexpensive cost, problematic chemicals such as formaldehyde are likely to continue to have widespread use, especially for projects for which reducing costs per square foot is a priority.

Finding affordable housing

There are two principal ways of securing affordable housing:

Signing up on the waiting list for a Section 8 voucher, knowing that sometime in the future one's name will come to the top of the list and one will be offered a Section 8 voucher to be used within a reasonable period of time (e.g., 90 days); and

Finding an affordable apartment on the open market, and applying to lease it.

Some Section 8 subsidies (or, their equivalent) are “attached” to projects built to be (and to remain) affordable by low- and very low-income individuals and families. Inclusionary zoning practices, in many areas, have resulted in set aside apartments for households with low- and ...
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