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The vexing affordable housing question

Marc Lefkowitz  |  03/29/12 @ 4:00pm  |  Posted in NEO Sustainable Communities

What will it take for Northeast Ohio to get housing options that are affordable and closer to an exclusive set of suburban highway developments where jobs are going? Affordable housing was discussed at this week's NEO Sustainable Communities Board Meeting.

Our current pattern of development is to scatter redundant jobs in 'growth' sectors like healthcare to bland, car-dependent places. New highway interchange development-at Harvard and I-271, I-480 in Twinsburg or Avon and I-90-is still the dominant paradigm. Just as frequently, the anchor is one of our big hospital system's latest suburban annex as it is a big box store.

How will these places-sometimes called 'edge cities'-also manage to attract the workforce of service jobs in chain dining and consumer goods over the long haul? The expectation is-despite their distance from the region's core population-the minimum wage positions created here will always be in demand. In a down economy, a 90-minute bus trip each way from Cleveland or an inner-ring suburb might still provide a viable pool of workers. But, what happens when the economy picks up, and new retail jobs closer in make the edge suburb McJob easy enough to leave behind?

One answer is for the region to agree that no one wins in the 'zero sum' game of sprawl. Another is for suburbs to start building more affordable housing where new jobs are being created. Why doesn't this happen? First, the cities leading the region in highway interchange development do not allow mixed uses that would lead to practical live-work places. Zoning codes are not set in stone, though. More examples can be found today of cities updating zoning to rethink high-energy places. Dade County, Florida and Suffolk County, Virginia are just two places connecting suburb to city with transit built near housing. You can find any number of examples of suburban retrofit, from Laurel Bay, SC connecting the cul-de-sacs to MetroWest in Fairfax, VA knocking down a whole subdivision of single-family homes for higher-density, mixed-use development.

Are suburbs in Northeast Ohio falling behind the curve? How many suburban elected officials are aware of an emerging trend and are adapting to design or rebuild suburban shopping centers and subdivision as walkable live-work places? Will they end up paying for costly retrofits later if changes to zoning don't end practices such as minimum parking, no building set backs, no sidewalks and no live-work?

Cities that promote car dependency will be the losers in the long haul. When the janitor at Ahuja or the stockboy at DSW can find an affordable place to live within walking distance of work, it relieves congestion and makes these investments more stable.

What drives this income segregated development pattern in Northeast Ohio, and what can be done to reverse it so that suburbs are better places to live and work?

The single-use interchange development is an outgrowth of the minimum 1-acre lot zoning in suburbs that exclude middle income wage earners. "Workforce housing" for nurses, firefighters and teachers historically has been a hard sell.

One solution is "inclusionary zoning" which requires developers to set aside a percentage (often 20%) of new units at prices that this group of workers can afford. Many times the quid pro quo is permitting higher density and smaller lots.

"The best way to address and prevent the conflicts that arise over low-income housing, especially potent in an atmosphere of fractured governance, is to develop regional plans and policies," states Retrofitting Suburbia. "Why should some working-class communities pay the price for low-cost services that generally benefit the residents of neighboring, more affluent communities?"

The authors call on regions to expand the Section 8 program and the Earned Income Tax Credit, inclusionary zoning and the Low Income Housing Tax Credit. They point to models of cooperation like the First Suburbs Consortium in Northeast Ohio, and to start a new conversation by clever efforts like the Long Island Index which gather and track data on housing, land use and jobs at a regional level "in order to encourage regional thinking and to inspire action."

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