Affordable Housing: Not Just for the Poor

By Naomi Byrne
President, Fort Worth Housing Solutions
Real Estate Council of Greater Fort Worth

Rising housing costs and the tough job market mean today’s affordable housing is geared toward middle class and families below the poverty line.

Picture this – May 2015, and you have just graduated from Texas Christian University with a bachelor’s degree in business. You land your first job earning $50,000 a year, the average salary for a newly graduated bachelor degree candidate in Texas. You’re single, no kids, and you are now in the top 30 percent of income earners in Fort Worth.

Now picture this – May 2015, and you have just graduated from TCU with a bachelor’s degree in business. You land your first job after graduation earning $50,000 a year, but you also have a stay-at-home spouse and two young children. Instead of being in the top 30 percent of income earners, you now qualify as “low-income.”

In 2015, the average family income for a family of four in the Fort Worth area was $70,500. If your family earned just 80 percent of that ($56,300), you were classified as “low-income” for the purposes of the federal government. And if you were paying more than 30 percent of your gross monthly income ($1,400) in rent or on a mortgage payment, you were considered “cost-burdened” as well, a situation that affects nearly one out of every two Texans.

Now picture this – you have been laid off from your job working in the oil fields after making six figures annually for the last few years. Or recently divorced with children after being a stay-at-home mom for the last ten years. Or a Vietnam Veteran on Social Security and a retirement pension. Or a new Fort Worth firefighter whose base salary is approximately $50,000 a year, a Fort Worth police officer ($52,200), or Fort Worth ISD teacher ($48,300).

The point is that “low-income” is not limited to the stereotypical single mother on public assistance with three children. Low-income defines a wide demographic today, and “affordable” housing in today’s market is not “the projects” of old. Rather, it’s geared towards not just providing housing options for families below the poverty line, but also individuals and families who have been historically categorized as “middle class.”

Many people believe that the housing crisis is a function of poor life choices. That if a person wants a nicer place to live, all they have to do is go to school and/or get a good job, and success will follow. But that is not entirely true.

Rising housing costs and a tough job market have created a housing shortage not just for those considered “poor,” but for a broader spectrum of working individuals. All across the U.S., the number of households that rent is at a 20-year high. In most markets, but especially robust ones like Fort Worth, we are faced with falling vacancy rates and exponential population growth. Millennials are more likely to rent than buy, and older and higher income households are more frequently turning to renting as they downsize.

On the flip side, units that were considered “affordable” in the past continue to be lost either to renovations resulting in higher rents or through demolition and new construction. In 2015, DFW rents increased by 7 percent from the prior year. In 2016, the pace is projected to slow to 3.9 percent, though the average rents will top $1,000 per month for the first time ever, with an average vacancy rate of 4.4 percent. Several thousand units are scheduled to come on line in 2016 in Fort Worth, but the majority of those units are primarily built for the higher income renter.

Now, years after the official end of the recession, the number of renters living in housing they cannot afford continues to set new records. Federal assistance efforts have struggled to keep up with need, while funding cuts limit new construction of affordable housing as well as preservation of existing subsidized units.

Aside from affordability, the nation also faces the challenge of revitalizing the many distressed neighborhoods where the housing recovery has failed to take hold. The private sector cannot profitably supply lower cost units, which results in affordable housing developers who must rely on decreasing government subsidy programs to lower construction costs and debt service.

These types of market conditions only further serve to exacerbate a tight market and result in an additional strain on the budgets for the nearly 50 percent of households that are unable to find units they can rent for less than 50 percent of their gross monthly income. Factor in other living expenses like food, clothing, child care, and transportation costs, and you begin to see why affordable housing is not just a “poor person” issue, but more increasingly, an issue faced by working families.

The U.K. defines affordable housing as: “social rented, affordable rented and intermediate housing, provided to specified eligible households whose needs are not met by the market.” In today’s market, where the lowest income families must make their money go even further, and where the middle class once thrived but now struggles, the perception of “affordable housing” needs to focus on “housing affordability” instead. Affordable housing means housing that YOU can afford, and for nearly 50 percent of our population, that is becoming more and more difficult to find.

Naomi Byrne is president of Fort Worth Housing Solutions, which builds communities through the purchase, acquisition, and construction of housing aimed at a mix of incomes. Her column is on behalf of the Real Estate Council of Greater Fort Worth, which writes a commercial real estate update for each issue of FW Inc.