CHARLOTTE LAWS - DREAM AND ACHIEVE TOGETHER
You're about to enter an Affordable Housing Zone
By Charlotte Laws
zoning ordinances and density bonuses—also known as "below market
rate" (BMR) housing programs—can negatively impact the community. These
affordable housing programs reward developers who earmark a percentage of new
homes or condos for those in the low and moderate income brackets by letting
them increase density, build taller structures and curtail open space and
parking requirements. This can lead to over-crowding and infrastructure
headaches for residents in the area.
"below market rate" (BMR) housing programs are arguably problematic
for other reasons. They are inherently unfair, hurt both market-rate and BMR
property owners, rely upon an unfounded evaluation of the home ownership
situation, and erroneously see the solution to the housing "crisis" as
the weaving of a paternalistic safety net across America.
are vital for hairy high-wire acts, but unnecessary—even deleterious--for the
recipients of "below market rate" housing programs, who can earn as
much as $126,000 per year in parts of Northern California.
A New York Times article tells of Marin County woman who
"likes nice things: fashionable clothes, dinner out with her husband, a
private school for her daughter (and has a household income of)...
$111,000," but is unable to buy a home without a 30% "inclusionary
zoning discount" in her neighborhood of choice, where properties sell for
as much as $1.8 million a piece.
story and the thousands like it amount to an emotional assault on the millions
of homeowners who had to make sacrifices (and still do)—forgoing private
school tuition, vacations, restaurant dinners and the ability to live in their
preferred neighborhood—in order to get into a condo or home. To afford the
payments, they may rent out a guest house or share the premises with a
"buying partner," such as a relative or friend. In the more expensive
real estate markets, they may allocate as much as 50% of their incomes for
mortgage payments and acquire a "stated income," "no ratio,"
or "no doc" loan in order to get bank approval in the first place.
Many purchase with little to no down payment because they have no real savings.
To know that Uncle Builder and Uncle Sam are handing money to others, especially
those with higher incomes, is nothing short of insulting.
market rate" housing programs can assist those who earn up to 120% of the
median-income for the area. In Atherton, California—the zip code with the
nation's highest median income—this would translate into home-buying subsidies
for those who make $240,000 per year. In addition, BMR programs are prone to
abuse by investors who hope to shimmy down a loophole.
market rate" housing programs amount to more than an emotional assault:
they arguably attack the pocketbooks of everyone. According to the Reason
Foundation, a nonprofit that has extensively studied affordable housing issues,
BMR programs "increase(s) the cost of market-rate homes in a typical city
by $33,000-$66,000 per unit" because developers raise the prices of
regularly priced properties to compensate for their losses on the low cost ones.
This means that average home-buying Americans may be subsidizing their so-called
needy, but oftentimes wealthier, BMR neighbors.
seems these "needy" BMR neighbors--who initially bubble like lottery
winners—are not so lucky after all because affordable housing programs, almost
without exception, impose heavy resale restrictions on their new owners. BMR
owners cannot obtain much, if any, equity from their new purchases for a period
of time—usually between 15-60 years, depending upon the rules of the locality
and program. In parts of Vermont, price controls stay in place for 99 years.
owners have less incentive to upgrade their properties because it is
questionable—at least in some parts of the country—whether they will be able
to recoup fix-up costs. They cannot access their equity for emergencies or
better investments. If they get a raise, the higher income may disqualify them
from retaining the property. They cannot sublet or move out without becoming
ineligible for the program, and they cannot sell to a relative or friend because
the city or county gets first right of refusal at the reduced sales price. If
the city or county declines, the property goes to the next BMR buyer on the
BMR buyers can weather the lengthy resale restriction periods in their
"property prisons," they will have to initiate the buying process
again only to find themselves in a less favorable position since home prices
tend to increase over time. BMR buyers may realize they have erred by
unnecessarily delaying the opportunity to accumulate equity like market-rate
owners. As a Los Angeles city planner says, "These programs are not for
those who want to build wealth."
for those who want to build wealth" are words that express a vote of
"no confidence" in the BMRers' ability to stand on their own two feet.
Providing crutches for those without broken bones—since most BMRers could be
market rate buyers—leads to chronic impairment because when healthy parts are
not used, they become weak.
programs effectively lock the door to real homeownership after giving the
"needy" a deceptive weekend playing house. It is like the parent who
sneaks an Easter egg into a child's basket and smiles, "look what you
have," only to snatch it back and give it to another child.
programs will no doubt become more popular as government continues to obsess
over affordability statistics rather than consult with real life experts—real
estate agents and lenders—who get low and moderate income clients into
properties "all day long" in some of the most expensive real estate
markets in the country.
USA Today reports that "the minimum household income needed for a
median-priced home at $495,000 (is) $115,910," it is incorrectly assumed
that someone with a $55,000 income cannot buy the property.
must shed myths that housing is unaffordable and scarce. Potential buyers must
be empowered with avenues for property investment, rather than coddled and
saddled with wealth-deflating options.
threats against current homeowners--whether related to high density or the
subsidization of BMR buyers—must end. Government should trust in supply and
demand and use available resources to clean up lower density, crime-invested
neighborhoods where the market would naturally produce a less expensive product.
BMR program is an RBM (really bad mistake), so use caution when you enter an
affordable housing zone.
In 2004, Charlotte Laws wrote a response to the Los Angeles proposed Inclusionary Zoning ordinance. This was written for her council - the Greater Valley Glen Council.
Santa Monica Daily Press - To be published on Dec. 21, 2005
Tolucan Times - To be published on Dec. 21, 2005