In Search of Affordable Housing

The WaPo profiles author Karrie Jacobs, a New York freelance writer who drove her VW convertible around the country in search of a dwelling she could afford — and wanted to live in. Jacobs, a founding editor of Dwell magazine, has just published a book based on her journeys, “The Perfect $100,000 House: A Trip Across America and Back in Pursuit of a Place to Call Home.”

Jacobs found that the vast majority of home builders are building big houses, not affordable ones, and most stick with traditional designs — nothing she’d be interested in buying. But she did find a few examples she found inspiring. One New Urbanist community outside Denver features a profusion of modernistic designs and colors. The houses were affordable when built, although the project has proven so successful that prices have soared past $500,000.

In Houston, Jacobs found an update of the old shotgun shanty, built on a quarter-acre lot for $150,000. The architect, Brett Zamore, is trying to turn his “Shot-Trot” design into a kit, which Jacobs figures will turn him into “the Starbucks of housing.”

The WaPo writer, Linda Hales, gives the impression that the creation of affordable housing is primarily an architectural issue — it’s not clear whether that’s her bias or Karrie Jacobs’. In reality, affordability is more a land use issue than an architectural one. Even so, the article is worth a quick read.

(Hat tip to Bob Burke for pointing me to the article.)

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7 responses to “In Search of Affordable Housing”

  1. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Affordable housing — no problem. Tysons Corners’ high rise condos will solve the problem. Right!

    A friend of mine and his wife were looking at some of the new condos that have already been constructed. He advised me that they were quite attractive. However, the lowest price they saw for a condo was $600,000 and that was for 1000 square feet.

    The market might stay soft, such that the $600 K figure drifts down, but it will not become $100 K. The builder would go broke if it could only sell for that price, given the high cost of land and construction.

  2. Ray Hyde Avatar

    Well, in 1989 I built my hous in close-in Fairfax/Alexandria for $89,000, including the land. I was able to do that because I was allowed to subdivide land I owned, and there were no major impediments to self building. That place has also soared past $500,000 but it has large mature trees, plenty of space, and wildlife.

    How did we get so screwed up from 1989 to now?

  3. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    How about this?

    Someone wants to start a small business.

    They’d like to live in a space in back of or on top of the shop.

    In the process – they become self-sufficient, off of public assistance and actually paying taxes…

    Now..take that same guy/gal and tell them they have to live in a condo or else commute 50 miles a day.

    Or .. How about this. If a company wants to locate here – it’s got to provide housing for . a cost equal to it’s average salary.. or pay the difference to the county which will use it as incentives for affordable housing for that company’s employees?

  4. Ray Hyde Avatar

    Where is the guy on public assitance going t get the capital or skills to start a small business?

    How can we tell a business what they must pay?

    Why not just tell them they can’t come. Or, redesign APFO’s so they apply to jobs instead of housing development. You can’t put a job here unless there is adequate housing and transportation.

  5. Ray Hyde Avatar

    Density is a good thing.

    Unless you go to any public hearing. Anywhere.

    Why is it when we talk about density it is only housing density and never job density? Google those two terms and see what you get. Isn’t our entire transportation/congestion problem a matter of too much job density?

    Can there bee too much of a good thing?

  6. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    It doesn’t matter where folks get “capital” as long as it is legal and the most important capital is “human”.

    Small Business if allowed to exist can prosper and add important benefits to communities.

  7. Ray Hyde Avatar

    You mean like that B&B story I related?

    Right now I’m working with the sawmill in an area near Lorton. I’m working in one of those old suburban neighborhoods, the kind with modest homes and large lots. When I show up with the sawmill, it generally draws some onlookers, who are surprised that such an old and simpleminded piece of junk can accomplish such work. I got a chance to speak to and know severqal of the neighbors.

    Most of these homes have have evidence of some kind of business on the property. One has a couple of grenhouses, and the lady tells me she makes most of her income from them, selling to retailers and ant the flower market in Old Town. Another has a bobcat and backhoe in a screened of area in the back. One home seems to have some kind of machine shop in a building in the back, and anther has a clock repair business. All of this is done in a tidy and unobtrusive way, because, after all, the owners have to live there, too. and they tolerate each others activities.

    These homes are surrounded by the New Suburbs: large, low maintenance, sterile homes on small lots with wide driveways and two or three car garages, policed to a T by the homeowners associations.

    I’m working on recycling a mountain of logs apparently salvaged from the construction sites. Looking around the neighborhood, I observed to my customer the he and his neighbors were kind of the last of the Mohicans.

    He agreed and gestured across the way at a big development and told me the story of how the farmer there had previously made his money doing business with the prison, and eventually made a fortune by selling out. His home still exists in the middle of the development. But, my customer said, “I don’t know how they can live like that. Wash your clothes and watch TV, I guess.”

    He said, the new folks are ruining everything. They think they own the place. He told the story of a man that owned a commercial lot nearby. After the roads were reubuilt and all those homes with two car garages came in he planned to put a Jiffy Lube type business on his lot, and he had one designed to fit the new character of the neighborhood, so it would fit in.

    The new neighbors showed up in droves at the hearing and got the idea shot down. They knew or should have known that this corner property was zoned commercial when they bought. He has held and paid taxes on that property for years, waiting for the right time to improve it. As you say, he has the property and he can do pretty much as he wants with it, as long as it doesn’t upset the neighbors.

    Except not.

    The new neighbors are doing pretty much what they want with their homes, and that has upset the existing and previous owners, who of course are vastly outnumbered.

    Now, this area has been entirely rebuilt, with new roads and shopping centers everywhere. The little shops in Occuquon have been overwhelmed by modern developments around them, and the prison is being tranformed. Clearly this isn’t a case where infrastructure is an issue, or the proposal adding costs to others. In fact, with all those new cars, you would think that a service shop would be critical infrastructure.

    Like you say, small business, if allowed to exist…….

    Before long, the most important form of capital will be opportunity. After seeing what is going on there, I’m pretty pessimistic about the idea of mixed use ever being what it was before it was destroyed by zoning and HOA’s.

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