Helping the Poor by… Replacing Lower-Income Housing with Mixed-Income Housing?

The Highland Grove mixed-income community. Photo credit: Richmond Free-Press

The premise behind public housing is that “market failure” fails to supply enough decent and affordable housing for poor people. Government must intervene in the housing marketplace not only with subsidies but as a real estate developer to fill the gap. What government succeeded in creating all too often — from Chicago’s infamous Pruitt Igoe towers to Richmond’s public housing courts — is concentrated poverty, crime and social dysfunction. Learning from past disasters, the public housing sector now sees the solution as diluting poverty by bundling low-income housing with middle-class housing under the rubric of “mixed-income” development.

Ironically, the consequence of implementing this philosophy in Richmond is less low-income housing and more middle-income housing.

The Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority has decided not to replace 22 of the 60 public housing units in Dove Court that were bulldozed in 2008 in order to make way for a a mixed-income community called Highland Grove. Reports the Richmond Free-Press:

Instead of units for public housing, RRHA plans to turn those 22 units into affordable housing for people with annual incomes four to six times the average $10,000 a year income of public housing residents. The new homes would start at $185,00, officials said. …

Built and managed by private developer Laurel Street, the Highland Grove community currently is comprised of 128 apartment units, including at least 30 units for which RRHA pays the rent for families who qualify for public housing and meet the landlord’s requirements. …

That leaves the 22 units. Those units will no longer exist, according to RRHA. Instead, they are being rolled into a new subdivision being planned for the Highland Grove community and offered to households making $46,000 to $65,000 a year.

The good news to be gleaned from this article is that the Highland Grove Developer seems capable of delivering houses at a more reasonable price than the developers of other recently announced projects. The price of new homes at Highland Grove, according to the Richmond Free Press, starts at $185,000. Rents for some units are as low as $715 per month. That compares to an affordable housing apartment complex in south Richmond costing an average of $200,000 each, charging average rents of $1,000.

Floor plan, Highland Grove Apartments, for one-bedroom apartment, 903 square feet.

Asking the questions no one else asks…. The schematic at left shows the floor plan of a one-bedroom apartment at the Highland Grove project for $715 in rent. The apartment has 903 square feet of living space.

Bacon’s Rebellion readers no doubt remember the living standards they had as youths struggling up the pay ladder. And many no doubt have had children who, upon leaving the nest, have lived in cramped college dormitories or bunked up five or six to a small house. Similarly, I have highlighted the phenomenon of Tiny Homes and container homes (320 square feet) that many young people are opting for as they willingly make the trade-off between less living space for lower rent.

How much square footage per person are poor people entitled to? How much do square-footage standards inflate the cost of lower-income housing? Could American society — either government or the private sector — provide more affordable housing if lower-income households enjoyed fewer square feet of living space? Is the purpose of housing policy to guarantee poor people with access to middle-class housing or to provide shelter that is sturdy, safe and equipped with basic amenities?

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7 responses to “Helping the Poor by… Replacing Lower-Income Housing with Mixed-Income Housing?”

  1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    It certainly seems that this square footage could have been designed more efficiently. A walk-in closet? That seems excessive. Eliminate that and decrease the size of other rooms and you could have a second bedroom.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Well taken. And your additional bedroom would cost little more. Affordable housing does not mean everyone get to be middle class. That is real problem here. Your low cost design improvement would have lent immense functional improvement to the unit and its potential universe of occupants at same cost.

  2. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    I am coming to believe that it would be much better to give out housing vouchers, rather than construct low income housing—sort of like food stamps, but for shelter. There will always be a market for cheaper apartments and the private sector will figure out how to meet it.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    I’m in agreement with means-tested housing vouchers that can be used to obtain housing – anywhere – at a market price.

    The big mistake is concentrating a low-income strata in one location.

    I would also have a point system (maybe they already do) to see what you do qualify for not unlike the way Obamacare works in that you’re entitled to a means-tested subsidy but then you can choose from different priced plans that meet your needs and income/subsidy.

    By the way, the “markets” do not provide affordable housing nor health care, nor education for everyone… it’s a myth.

  4. I helped at a Redevelopment and Housing design time, where people designed what they wanted. Simple 2 bedroom, 1 bath, but for one or two people, we had to get rid of the dishwasher (that seemed to be a problem for a few) but you have to compromise.
    For the families it was different, but again, small was the thing.
    I’m not sure why it wouldn’t be better to rehab smaller places for pre 1990? or 2000?
    I also can’t see more than 3 bedrooms. Parent(s), boy children in one room, girls in the other.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Excellent point. Some of poor today, and their advocates, likely would turn up their nose at the 1950’s sq. ft. of housing (attached and unattached), that solid middle class, even upper middle class, lived in happily. Arlington County used to be filled with these units, and likely still is in places. Many were built and occupied before air-conditioning, not to mention dishwasher, and etc.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    Given the limits of the money available, it makes sense to go for modest in scope and scale but again – purposeful stigmatizing by denying ordinary modern day features is not a “solution” – it’s just mean-spirited for no good reason – not even money.

    Provide means-tested vouchers and let people go find what suits them and their income. They’ll do a better job of getting bang for the buck than some one-size top-down stuff that is more niggling than useful.

    People, even poor and low-income folks just want to be “normal” and live like others – not fancy or even middle-class.

    We used to say that as kids, some did not even know they were “poor” and that was a good thing – and it still is…

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