Affordable Housing: Why It's So Hard to Come By

This image of a Levittown house turned real estate office appears to be peddling something current mortgage brokers have had little time for: vigilance.

With house prices plummeting and bad mortgages as common as Sarah Palin impersonators, I sometimes wonder why, for all the talk about affordable housing, few people actually seem to live in it. In this summer’s issue of The Wilson Quarterly professor of urbanism at UPenn and stellar essayist Witold Rybczynski takes up that very subject.

housing

In a canny essay that starts with Levittown and ends with exurban sprawl, Rybczynski offers two explanations for why a house in Levittown in the early 1950s cost three times the average American income but today’s average home costs some six times the average wage. And it’s not because building a house is any more expensive then as opposed to now.

As well as being a solid primer in American affordable housing, Rybczynski offers two answers as to why there aren’t many affordable homes in the States: zoning for big lots, which tend to keep property values high and the odds of lower-income neighbors low, and state ballot initiatives, like Prop 13 in California, that in an effort to keep property taxes low, pass the cost of developer-built roads, sewers, parks etc. on directly to home buyers. 

Rybczynski makes implicit calls for greater density, less sprawl, and better legislation with regards to housing policy. All ideas that developers, architects, and politicians, ought to heed.

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