July 25, 2008

Rethinking Affordable Housing

by Margie Sollinger, Staff Attorney.

The power of words to direct public discourse is often employed by politicians and campaign strategists. I’d like to suggest that we, the electorate, likewise harness that power to not only shape the current dialogue, but also to influence individual mindset and public policy going forward.

The phrase “affordable housing” is one that I think could use a slight adjustment. As a general matter, I object to the primacy that our society has given to terms of economics. For example, referring to someone as a “low-income person” describes that person solely in terms of their financial resources. And if people are being described in terms of money, it follows that governmental policies addressing our problems and needs will likewise be narrowly construed.

Unsurprisingly, the result of one-dimensional policies aimed at solving dynamic problems is abject failure, like the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago. Although the new housing movement, styled “mixed income” housing, seeks to correct some of the mistakes of the past, it still perpetuates a money-centric politics and will inevitably fall short.

Fallen by the wayside are a multitude of other problems individuals and families face when it comes to housing. One pervasive concern raised by our clients is the poor quality of their housing. Whether it is a cockroach infestation, a leaky roof, no heat, mold, sewage back-ups, or all of the above, I would venture to say that most tenants who live in so-called affordable housing also live in substandard conditions. Although the District of Columbia Housing Code sets quality standards for all housing within the District of Columbia, tenants’ options for securing landlord compliance with the Housing Code are severely limited and largely ineffectual.

Despite its prominence, the media and policymakers give little attention to the quality of affordable housing. Indeed, recent efforts by local legal advocates to improve enforcement of the Housing Code have been met with resistance. Thus, I think before we can successfully tackle the substance of our policies, we have to revamp the way that we talk (and ultimately think) about our goals and the issues surrounding them. My suggestion: let’s start calling for “adequate affordable housing.” Have a better phrasing? Alternative suggestions are welcome for this or any other phrases you think could use modification.


LJM said...

The term "affordable" does seem to lead many landlords and some tenants to a "you get what you pay for" way of thinking.

ah said...

Great post. I do think language helps direct advocacy and policy. We should be advocating for high-quality, safe, accessible and affordable housing for everyone who needs it.