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Solutions to Workforce Housing Problems Won't Be Found in the Market Alone
Yet even subsidies may not be a sufficient incentive for private developers. Many would just as soon avoid the hassles of complex financial subsidy programs and contentious rezoning hearings at which density and traffic congestion are hotly debated. Designing for residential diversity and marketing units to a socioeconomically heterogeneous clientele can be burdensome.
Until the 1970s, American voters and political leaders felt differently about housing. Citizens once seemed to understand that the real estate development industry could not satisfy the full range of housing needs. Consequently, local and state housing agencies, often with federal assistance, built or rebuilt housing for those who could not participate freely in the market. Diverse housing assistance programs supported construction of new or rehabilitated housing, whether developed by public housing agencies or by private, for-profit and nonprofit sponsors.
During the Nixon administration, feelings shifted. Some housing agencies and housing programs had been seriously mismanaged, and many badly designed and poorly operated housing projects had become dysfunctional. It became politically easy to question the entire assisted-housing enterprise.
The Nixon strategy was to introduce housing vouchers and let the private sector build all of the nation's housing. Thus the federal government's role would be simply to provide rent payment coupons to eligible tenants, who then could go out and competitively seek dwellings in the open market.
But the Reagan administration went further and extinguished any lingering feelings about proactive government initiatives or meaningful subsidy programs for affordable housing. Since the early 1980s, the issue of housing has steadily dimmed in the national consciousness and diminished as an item in the national budget. Likewise, assisted housing has been generally a low-priority item on the agendas of many state and local governments.
Could the Tysons Corner experience suggest that affordable housing may once again become a matter of serious public concern? To stimulate construction of affordable housing, might Fairfax County, one of the wealthiest jurisdictions in the nation, consider making developers an offer they can't refuse?
If the concern is real, and if the county wants to achieve its worthy housing and transportation aspirations at Tysons Corner, it will have to put its money where its mouth is. Otherwise, workers will continue to have no choice but to live ever farther away from where they work.
Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.