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Study: Lack of affordable housing may prove costly

Study: Lack of affordable
housing may prove costly

By Matt Moroney

Feb. 13, 2002

A study recently released by the Public Policy Forum finds that southeastern Wisconsin must promote more affordable and less segregated housing for minorities if the region hopes to compete economically against other metropolitan areas.

The availability of affordable housing is an important engine for economic growth. Companies need workers close to their employment centers for increased productivity, workers need housing that they can afford and work force homes need appliances, furnishings and other goods and services. In addition, homeownership is one avenue that many homeowners rely on to accumulate wealth. Simply put, more individuals in more affordable homes leads to greater economic growth.

The study also finds that there is a lack of will by many local elected officials to accept more work force housing. This finding is not surprising to those involved with the housing industry. In the region’s past, community leaders recognized the need for affordable housing and allowed smaller houses on smaller lots so citizens could have a greater investment and stake in the community due to their homeownership. As household incomes grew, so too did many of these homes with additions and other remodeling projects. However, at some point in time, priorities shifted in many communities and a greater emphasis was placed on becoming an exclusive community that only allows high-end homes on large lots. Many community leaders justify this switch in mindset with the false belief that smaller homes don’t pay their own way (studies have shown that this belief is often unfounded).

They also fallaciously believe that when they purchased their home that they paid their own way to enter the community (this also is not true because many of these homeowners didn’t pay impact fees and the community installed the infrastructure, which doesn’t occur today).

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Most important, local officials feel that they don’t play a role or have any responsibility for the housing market. Nothing is further from the truth. By establishing land-use plans and creating zoning districts, local governments dictate the type of housing that is going to occur in their community. If a density of 2-unit acres is established in a community, I can guarantee with today’s land prices, infrastructure costs, impact fees and additional environmental regulations, that the homes built on this piece of property will not be something that police, firefighters, teachers and similar hard-working citizens can afford. To claim a community has no role in supplying work force housing is a ridiculous claim, and community leaders need to accept the responsibility of their positions and provide a variety of housing opportunities in their community for all income ranges.

Interestingly, the study suggests: It is difficult for many families, affluent municipalities or even certain entire counties to see the worsening problem that the region faces if it fails to confront its housing problem. On the surface, for example, Waukesha County is doing fine (as are its communities and most of its households). It has gained enormously in tax base and aggregate wealth, largely at the expense of surrounding counties. But even in Waukesha, one of the most affluent counties in the United States, employers are struggling to fill openings for skilled jobs, partly because potential workers cannot afford to live nearby. And the owner of each house in Waukesha County is counting on one day getting a good return on his or her investment. For that to happen, a future family that has the wherewithal and credit worthiness to buy the house must materialize. The price will depend on the strength of the market, which in turn will depend on the full participation of working families and minorities.

The study concludes: "In order to enhance the economic and social health of the region as a whole, all communities need to be encouraged to provide their fair share of low- and moderate-income housing." The Metropolitan Builders Association agrees with this conclusion and urges community leaders to specifically identify areas in their Smart Growth land-use plans that will house the communities’ work forces and then encourage housing in these areas.

Matt Moroney is the executive director of the Metropolitan Builders Association and can be reached at 262-436-1122 or by email.

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