Affordable Rent Is a Smart Growth Imperative

The case for inner city affordable rental accommodation is a critical component in smart growth. Smart growth recognizes regional approaches to development and to improving choice in urban service and location, which can radically expand access to the city. At the same time, inclusiveness is a make-or-break factor for the city of the future.

More than a third of New Yorkers pay 50% of their income in rent. These numbers have enormous implications, considering that close to 70% of New Yorkers are renters. Research found that between 2000 and 2012 rents rose faster than wages -- 75% rent increases compared with 31% raises during the same 12-year period.

In many ways, New Yorkers are being priced out of their city. This could be changed. At the heart of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio's ambitious affordable housing plan lies the concept of "inclusionary zoning," which will require developers to put aside a percentage of new units for low- and moderate-income New Yorkers.

Mayor De Blasio aims to preserve 200,000 such units over ten years at a cost of $41 billion, which includes private sector investment to the value of $30 billion. Creating tax breaks, incentives, and zoning changes on current buildings, allowing taller buildings and greater density, could achieve this, the Mayor argues.

Rent stabilization and controls will be a major factor for Mayor De Blasio to consider. Take Berlin, the German city taking the real estate bull by the horns. "Renting has to remain affordable for those on average incomes," German justice minister Heiko Maas told The Guardian. A new rent cap scheme will ensure that no rentals rise above 10% of local averages, and will clamp down on excessive increases. "The cap will contribute towards that. Rent rises over 30% or 40% in concentrated areas are simply unacceptable."

Affordable inner city rentals intrinsically impact social life in the city. For this reason, policy makers need to ensure that inclusiveness and integration are ensured. In London, such social integration is failing, and this is of great concern. So called "poor doors" are separate entrances for low-income households living in the same apartment buildings occupied by well-off tenants. Using them, developers have complied with planning and zoning regulations, but done this according to the letter, rather than the spirit of the law.

Smart growth, although interpreted very differently in cities around the world, is based on a principled package of solutions that creates more choice and ultimately provides better housing, transport, economic development, and environmental protection. Johannesburg, South Africa's largest and most sprawling city, prioritizes corridor developments along which affordable housing is envisioned. These Rea Vaya (rapid bus transport) corridors also stitch together the highly segregated city, which still bears visible scars of apartheid era planning.

Rea Vaya (rapid bus transport) stop in Johannesburg. (Source:  City of Joburg )

Rea Vaya (rapid bus transport) stop in Johannesburg. (Source: City of Joburg)

Government grants and incentives are packaged with planning permissions to allow for the desired housing stock to be developed, and units to be reserved for affordable housing. Sometimes, however, a plan carries more weight than everyday realities. Research by the Johannesburg-based Socio-Economic Rights Institute found that around half of inner city residents -- including car guards, domestic workers, taxi drivers, informal traders, and security guards -- cannot afford the cheapest rental offerings the state and private sector currently provide.

These households need to resort to backyard shacks, enclosed balconies, and bed-sharing arrangements. The city government has cracked down on what it calls "bad buildings," inner city derelict buildings which are home to these low income households. What is the social cost of such urban regeneration?

Another dynamic that needs to be considered in the affordable housing equation is household size. This could radically change the way we think about the nature of rental accommodation. To return to New York, the Furman Center recently reported that the "share of one-person households in the U.S. rose from 10 percent in 1950 to over 26 percent of all households in 2010." Smaller and more compact units might be more feasible.

Responding to the findings of the Furman Center, and in tune with Mayor De Blasio's housing plan, architecture fellows at the Institute for Public Architecture have come up with a proposal known as "9 x 18" (162 square feet). This is the size of typical parking space. Reporting for The New York Times, Michael Kimmelman said, "(The plan) calls for a new regulation that would tie the number of required parking spaces to the number and size of apartments, their affordability and proximity to mass transit." (See the plans here.)

Whether it is a result of public-private-community compacts, rental caps, inclusiveness measures, or of a response to the real needs of citizens, affordable housing is a critical component of smart growth and greater choice.

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  1. This article first appeared on UBM Future Cities