Against the welter of misunderstanding that surrounds "affordable" housing and what to do about it, confusion stands out in bold relief.

Even the term, itself, "affordable housing," has become something of a sick joke in Southern California where the median-priced home -- the halfway point between the highest and the lowest priced home -- can be as high as Orange County's $103,000. It's a price that presupposes an annual income of $43,200 on the part of the buyer and where, even in that well-to-do corner of the state, the median family income is only $23,000 -- $2,800 higher than the Department of Housing and Urban Development's official median income for the state.

Which leaves an increasingly higher percentage of the potential home buying public like the Little Match Girl -- with its nose pressed against a cold window, the goal unattainable but highly visible.

And, while tongue-clucking over the unaffordability of home ownership is as old as the emergence of the problem itself, it has really been only in the past couple of years that a previously "unthinkable" approach to it has gained currency -- local government intervention.

Or, as Sandy Sandling, vice president of Warmington Group, Inc., put it: 'Nobody was building low-cost housing and so the government, by decree, said: 'Thou shalt build lower income housing if you're going to build at all.'" And today, the social experiment that began modestly in Palo Alto in 1972 has assumed the proportions of a tidal wave.

"It's definitely the buzz word, today," according to Scott Field, a graduate student assistant in the State Department of Housing and Community Development who is conducting a survey of such legislation in the state.

"Right now, we've got 21 political jurisdictions with such laws on the books and at least twice that many considering it. It's really hard to tell. It's at least in the talking stage almost every place where you've got a housing pinch."

And "it," of course, is "inclusionary housing" or "inclusionary zoning," a technique whereby the political subdivision -- city, county, coastal commission, or what-have-you -- simply mandates that for every X number of units of conventional housing that a developer wants to build, he must build a certain percentage of those in the "affordable" range.

But there is a "carrot" with this "stick" -- bonus density provisions (permission to build more units-per-acre than present zoning allows) -- and a number of other possible incentives, most of them having to do with exemptions from fees or dedication of land for parks, streets and the like. Also: an acceleration in the paper work that sometimes bogs housing developments down for as long as 18 months.

It's an issue on which both opponents and supporters are in 100 percent agreement on the most salient point: that lack of affordable housing is not merely a freakish, economic dislocation that is of the moment and will leave no permanent scars.