People often ask about what defines “affordable housing,” or what everyone from politicians and developers to journalists and writers like myself mean when we say residential units are “affordable.”In some sense, the term is misleading because we are not referring to “affordability” as an overall term—so this isn’t about the lack of general, what-is-the-specific-rent-cost? affordability.
We’ll get into the details of that last part in a bit but general affordability is what I call affordability with a little “a,” and it is something that we are, as a community and state, failing to address. As I said, we’ll address that later in the article.Most of the time politicians talk or urbanist writers discuss “affordable housing developments,” they are referring to what I call Affordability with a capital “A,” with a direct connection to the federal definition of poverty—not necessarily what most people can’t afford in a given area. This is also what almost every developer refers to when they say part or the entirety of their project is “affordable.”
And in this sense, the specifics depend on whom the housing is serving—some affordable projects are reserved for veterans or those with special needs or seniors—and other certain caveats.
The federal department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) defines affordable housing as a home in which a low-income family is spending 30% or less of their income on gross housing costs, including utilities. Low-income families are defined typically as earning 80% or less of the median income within a given area; it goes down from there to very low-income (30-50% of the average median income), and extremely low-income (<30% of the average median income).
For instance, one of the projects I lauded, the Beacon Apartments, are available to seniors and others who qualify as low-income, very low-income, or extremely low income. Twenty-six units will be given to extremely low income families; 72 units to very low income; and 60 to low income families; two will be reserved for a manager of each building.While not exact, roughly breaking down the applicability of who can move into these spaces would go something like this: The median income for Long Beach is about $58,000 per year. Families defined as Low Income would be those that make $46,000 to $29,000; families defined as Very Low Income would make between $29,000 and $17,000; and Extremely Low Income families would make anything under $17,000 per year.
These would be the families, generically speaking and presuming the project was using the citywide average median income mark, that would be able to apply to live inside these apartments, depending on how those apartments are designated.
What is often not addressed as “affordable housing” by politicians and developers is what is called the “missing middle,” housing that is accessible for households who make too much to be federally-defined as low-income but do not make enough money to afford market-rate apartments.
This is where the public conversation about affordability and formal affordable housing becomes convoluted: Many just want to talk about general affordability while politicians and developers almost exclusively talk about federally-defined affordable housing.