Affordable housing – the nest still unbuilt

THIS IS THE SEASON for nesting, and not just among feathered species.

"For Sale" signs proliferate on suburban lawns. Weekend open houses serve as a magnet not only for serious buyers, hoping that this might be The One, but also for curious neighbors, eager to peek at floor plans and decorating schemes. And everywhere, a frenzy of seasonal cleaning, landscaping, and beautification projects attests to the importance of Home Sweet Home.

But for a growing number of families, nesting remains an elusive dream. They are would-be homeowners priced out of soaring real-estate markets. Some are moderate-income. Others, the working poor trapped in low-wage jobs, are unable to afford even low-rent apartments.

For all of them, the term "affordable housing" carries a hollow ring.

Affordable housing – that bland, faceless phrase – is a subject honored in theory but too often ignored in practice. Last week, when US mayors gathered in Washington for a National Housing Forum, they urged Congress to address the growing shortage of such housing.

The words "serious" and "crisis" flew through the spring air, with accompanying statistics to justify the rhetoric.

The mayors point to studies showing that approximately 1 in 7 families in the US, roughly 14 million, spend more than half their income on housing or live in severely inadequate housing.

And among the estimated 3.5 million Americans at risk of becoming homeless during a particular year, the mayors said, 80 percent face that situation simply because they can't find apartments that fit their income. Working mothers and their children account for half of that group.

At the same time, the government's subsidized housing stock is shrinking as landlords choose not to renew contracts so they can earn higher market rents.

What a contrast to leafy suburbs, where a strong real estate market makes for lively party conversation among homeowners who have watched the price of their property increase tenfold over 20 or 25 years.

Yet some of those suburbs are now becoming the battleground for what is being called a "war" over affordable housing. In Massachusetts, as one example, an "antisnob" zoning law, called Chapter 40B, allows developers in certain towns to bypass local laws and build mixed-income developments.

These communities may welcome housing for the over-55 market, because those owners make no demands on schools. But mention affordable housing and neighbors may buzz, citing often- legitimate concerns that this growth will strain schools and other local services.

Even idealists can occasionally face sobering realities. Two years ago, a friend, recently widowed, sold her house and bought a town house in a mixed-income development in a pastoral suburb. She paid market value; her next-door neighbors paid far less, on the basis of their income. Fair enough.

My friend moved in with high hopes. But that family included menacing teenagers and a father with a criminal record. The situation became so challenging that my friend is reluctantly moving, aware that such experiences may be the exception.

Affordable housing costs money. But a lack of it costs even more. Think of the childhoods blighted by living in dangerous neighborhoods and attending the inadequate schools that often serve them.

And then there is the ultimate price – the loss of life when no housing exists. In Boston, 183 homeless people have died in the past 12 months.

Still, the news from the mayors may be encouraging. Their proposals include tax credits for developers of single-family homes and incentives for owners to sell property to nonprofit housing groups.

A white picket fence and a rose-covered cottage may be particularly American images of home and domesticity. But they reflect a universal longing for comfort, security, warmth, and permanence.

No wonder a pleasant roof over one's head becomes a subject enshrined even in songs, as in the old verse, "We'll build a little house for two,/ Or three or four, or maybe more."

That dream transcends borders, cultures, and socioeconomic classes.

A long-time real-estate broker once told me that people don't buy a house. They buy the flowering cherry tree in the backyard, or the slant of sun streaming through the window onto the kitchen table, or the bedroom under the eaves that reminds them of a childhood home.

Those are all valid reasons for falling in love with a particular address. In the context of the current housing crisis, they're also reminders that choices like these should not be the province only of the most fortunate. Nesting is an equal-opportunity right.

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