Arthur Winn’s View

Our Leading Cities Need Workforce Housing

The availability of affordable, multifamily housing for an urban workforce has long fueled the socio-economic vitality of America’s leading cities. It has provided hardworking young people, immigrants and minorities a sturdy ladder toward the American Dream.

But some of the rungs on that ladder are missing today. High-end apartment and condominium complexes dominate housing development inside the top tier urban markets. Median rents are setting new records at levels that are well out of reach for the workforce, even for those who make 100 percent of their local median income.

For our largest cities to be truly great cities, a housing pathway that accommodates a middle class workforce is essential.

Historically, our great cities have served as models of upward mobility, reinforcing opportunities to advance through hard work and self-sufficiency in pursuit of a better life. But how does a capitalistic democracy survive when the majority of a city’s workforce is economically excluded from experiencing the great teaching hospitals, colleges, art, culture and commerce of a given state?

America’s top mayors understand what is at stake. To prevent economic segregation among their constituents, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser and others are pursuing a wide range of housing strategies.

In D.C., for example, the effort to create or preserve 800 affordable housing units spanning 12 development projects demands our active support, but more dramatic steps are needed to facilitate workforce housing options here and in our other largest cities. Free market forces alone will not solve the workforce housing problem; it will require the public and private sectors joining forces to develop housing at appropriate rent levels.

In the largest urban centers, today’s definition of “mixed income” housing has become a misnomer that typically means that 80 percent of tenants in an apartment community pay high market rate rents while the remaining 20 percent of units are reserved for low-income tenants paying low rent levels. In practice, there is not very much “mixing” taking place.

What’s missing is a workforce housing category with apartments at rents that fall between those two extremes and within the financial grasp of the wage earners who are being squeezed out of the market.

As a first step, we need the federal government to pilot a new subsidy program that can provide the ballast that cash-strapped big city mayors need to multiply the scarce housing resources at their disposal.

This experimental effort should be focused on only our largest cities and should be administered at the state level to ensure local accountability and to allow those closest to the problem to customize workforce housing investments at income mixes specific to each city’s needs.

To be successful, this new workforce housing initiative must be pursued in tandem with the innovative ideas that America’s leading mayors are trying to move forward to reduce housing development costs and thus, achieve more relevant rent mixing.

Inclusionary zoning, tax abatements, zoning relief, additional local and state developer subsidies, and preferred labor rates for union-built, income-restricted housing – all of these initiatives should be on the table.

There is evidence a multi-pronged approach such as this can succeed.

For example, America’s current housing programs formed in the 1980s after we recognized it was bad public policy to build public housing to segregate and warehouse the poor in barracks relegated to the outskirts of a city’s core.

With appropriate federal and state investment, state housing finance agencies and private developers were able to work together to create and champion high quality, low and moderate income multifamily housing that not only became assets in urban and suburban communities but also offered access to a better life for citizens of low and moderate means.

We can repeat that success today.

To remain great cities, our largest cities once again must serve as vibrant examples of democratic diversity and upward mobility, welcoming and accessible to a range of cultures and economic strata.

Workforce housing is the missing ingredient. For the United States to remain a land of opportunity, we cannot stand by idly while our leading cities become gated communities.

Arthur Winn is founder and principal of WinnCompanies, the fifth largest multi-family housing manager and the largest manager of affordable and military housing in the United States, including in Washington, D.C. To learn more about Arthur Winn, visit http://www.arthurwinn.net/