Canada, the United States, and Australia each have a growing affordable housing crisis. We have seen the headlines:
All three wealthy nations use gallons of ink announcing programs to address the problem. The US administration’s 2021 mega infrasrtructure plan includes the most recent grand scheme. The plan allocates US$ 213 billion to affordable housing initiatives. Over a ten year period the monies will be used to:
At first blush, this would appear to be an ambitious plan. Today, ten million American families spend more than 50% of household income on housing. Additionally, federal housing assistance reaches only one in four eligible families. There is a current 6.8 million unit shortage of affordable rental homes for low income earners in the States. Ergo, a program to build and retrofit 2 million units over ten years doesn’t even start to meet existing needs.
The dollar amount of the US program sounds impressive. However, the program cost per person per year is only $65. Contrast this to Vienna, Austria that already boasts 440,000 affordable housing units. In that country, the annual per person cost of affordable housing works out to about $360. This allows for the addition 4,300 affordable housing units each year.
Success of the ten-year plan will rely on the usual smorgasbord of government programs. There will be some direct government funding, tax credits, grants, and project-based rental assistance. Also, it will rely heavily on public-private partnerships with private developers, municipalities, and not-for-profit organizations. It seems that the program is “hoping to achieve significantly different results by repeating the same mistakes.” Is this not a frequently quoted definition of insanity?
There is no intent to pick on the United States. It is just that its recently announced program exemplifies the lack of ambition and imagination behind many developed countries’ plans to deal with the affordable housing crisis. So what has to be done?
Developed nations that have chronic housing problems appear focussed on providing opportunity to rent or purchase a home. Also, ambition constrained by a definition of affordable as 30% of median household income ignores the 50% of the population below the median.
Countries with the greatest success in providing affordable housing for all see housing as a basic human right. Finland embodies this approach with its nation-wide Housing First program, which has radically reduced homelessness in that country. In Denmark, co-operatives own one-third of the homes in Copenhagen and the non-profit sector houses one-fifth of Danes. The Austrian model targets housing costs of between 20% and 25% of individual household income. Is it any wonder these countries top multiple “happiness” and “livability” indexes.
The benefits of good housing for all go beyond happiness. Children have more confidence, perform better in school, and are more involved in community activities. Family health, both physical and mental, improves. Household financial stability develops. All of this benefits community. Employment increases, taxes and local government revenues rise, and households have more money to spend. Crime rates fall, health care costs drop, and reliance on social welfare programs reduces. Good affordable housing programs contribute to their continued development.
Canada, the United States, and Australia are not alone! Many other countries such as Ireland, the United Kingdom, and France, have a growing affordable housing crisis. Step one is a change in attitude and ambition.
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