Cities take on housing crunch, creatively

As home costs hit 'crisis' level for more people, metro areas such as New York are launching initiatives to boost affordable housing.

Home may be where the heart is, but for working Americans like New York City Fireman Ricardo Sosa, it's becoming increasingly difficult to pay for.

Even with the second income of his wife, Gladys, Mr. Sosa had almost despaired of ever owning a home in south Brooklyn, where he grew up. But the couple and their two kids now live in a renovated two-family home there, thanks to a public-private partnership to help more New Yorkers pay for homes.

The effort here - expanded recently when Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a $3 billion affordable-housing program - mirrors a growing trend nationwide. Facing a deepening affordability crisis, cities and states across the nation are getting creative:

• Kentucky is using unclaimed lottery funds to build homes for low-income people to buy.

• Massachusetts, Maine, and Connecticut are collaborating with the National Trust for Historic Preservation to renovate crumbling and abandoned homes for working people.

• Mayors in the Chicago area are offering incentives to employers to help their lower- and middle-income workers with housing costs.

"Affordable housing is fundamental to our long-term economic prosperity," says New York Mayor Bloomberg. "Because we don't have the resources we need now, we have to be as creative as we can."

New York City's new program will build or rehabilitate 65,000 new units. The initiative is the largest in a decade. But instead of a massive infusion of public money, it relies on creative public financing to leverage private-sector investments.

Burgeoning housing needs

In 2001, more than 14 million American families, or 1 in 7, had a "critical housing need" - which means they pay more than half their income for a place to live, or they reside in dilapidated, decaying houses.

The most affected are working people, like Sosa. In 1997, roughly 3 million low- and moderate-income American families had a critical housing need, according to the National Housing Conference, a nonprofit policy analysis organization in Washington. By 2001, that number jumped to 4.8 million - a 60 percent hike.

While the problem is the worst in the Northeast and West, where the 1990s boom pushed up housing prices, it's spreading fast to the Midwest and the South.

"It's a pervasive problem in all areas of the country," says Barbara Lipman, director of research for the Center for Housing Policy, the research arm of the National Housing Conference. "It's a problem for your hard-working neighbors, not just urban renters. It's affecting suburban homeowners and rural areas as well."

Mr. Sosa's story illustrates the problem as well as the success of some of the creative solutions devised to deal with it. His wife works for the police department, and their two kids go to public schools. During the past decade, the couple watched rents rise around them and knew they soon wouldn't be able to afford their own home. But they saw an ad from the nonprofit Neighborhood Homes Program that had a small number of affordable homes for sale.

They were a part of a program in which local nonprofit groups, with seed money from the city and support from Citibank, were able to renovate decaying homes and offer them at a reasonable price. The catch: There were so few available that Sosa had to enter a lottery for the chance to buy one. He was selected, and a year ago he and his family moved into a home in Park Slope.

"It isn't fair that you have to win the lottery to afford a decent home, when you work hard for this city, do your duty, put your life on the line, all while trying to raise a family," Sosa says.

Creating homes for thousands

Mayor Bloomberg's new initiative is dependent on similar public-private partnerships as well as on streamlining building codes and rezoning industrial areas to make more room for residential development. He's hoping that it will make thousands more homes available in the next five years.

The problem of finding affordable homes extends across the country. In the greater Chicago area for instance, town mayors have banded together to encourage employers to help lower- and middle-income workers with down payments by offering matching grants.

The City of St. Charles, Ill., an affluent suburb with about 30,000 people, has also decided to act as model for other employers. Starting in January, it will offer up to $5,000 to help with closing costs and the down payments for clerks, police officers, and firefighters who fall below the area's median income of $57,000.

"Housing's become very expensive here, and we want our employees to be able to live near where they work," says Michelle Ribant, a community planner who works for the city.

Rising building costs

The affordability crisis for many is exacerbated by the cost of construction across the country - which has priced many people out of the market.

That's why New York and other cities are working to revise their building codes. The most that could do would be to shear 5 to 10 percent off the price of new construction. So some housing activists are looking for other ways to lower the cost of building.

In Minnesota, former St. Paul Mayor George Latimer has developed a for-profit company with several unions to make prefabricated homes. By building them in a factory, then moving them to a building site, the construction can go on all year long, regardless of the weather. The goal is to ensure they're high quality, but also affordable in the long term. "When people start kicking the tires and really looking at these houses they'll see they're really an attractive product," says Mr. Latimer.

In Baltimore, which has an estimated 15,000 abandoned homes, the city is looking at ways to get clear title to reclaim them and encourage developers and nonprofit organizations to rehabilitate them.

"We've got to do things to promote investment, to give people the confidence that we can bring up the values of the neighborhoods," says Paul Graziano, Baltimore housing commissioner.

As in New York, the hope is that a limited amount of seed money will renovate enough homes to encourage even more private investment. Mayor Bloomberg points to the rebirth of Harlem, the South Bronx, and Central Brooklyn as examples he'd like to see replicated.

Ricardo Sosa hopes the mayor will succeed. "Firefighters would love not to spend hours commuting upstate or to Long Island," he says. "The plain fact is that even if their wives - or husbands - are working, most firefighters can't afford it."

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