What is affordable housing? With the Cal-Weber 40 project approved for tax credits in late September, there have been some reservations expressed about whether building affordable communities will really bring anything to the table in terms of downtown revitalization. The quick answer is, yes, they will, but some clarification is needed on what affordable housing is and what it isn’t.
Many people and organizations working on low-income housing developments work from the belief that everyone, regardless of income, deserves a safe, quality place to live. Most folks and agencies define “affordable” as housing that costs no more than 30 percent of an individual or household’s annual income. Unfortunately, much of the housing available in California falls on the wrong side of this threshold. Couple that reality with a city like Stockton, where poverty rates are high, and it can be really difficult to find budget-friendly housing – especially for families.
There is a stigma associating affordable housing developments with infamous mid-twentieth century low-income “projects.” But we’ve come a long way toward understanding that simply providing a dwelling unit does little to assist people and their families mired in the trials of poverty. The approach toward housing over the past few decades has evolved holistically. Nonprofit developers and others dedicated to helping those living paycheck-to-paycheck have worked extensively to incorporate services and amenities into new developments.
It’s now very difficult to build an affordable housing community without ensuring these additional community characteristics are incorporated, such as proximity to transit, schools and libraries; making sure residents have a local grocery store to go to; providing onsite daycare and afterschool activities for children and even computer labs in some developments. These services must be incorporated because it’s now nearly impossible to finance affordable housing developments without the subsidy local, state and federal funding sources provide.
Still, there are some who might say, “But, wait! We don’t want all that crime associated with poor people. We don’t want our property values to plummet!” What this comes down to is management – like any other housing development, be it affordable or market rate. It’s true that some of the low-income housing currently located in downtown Stockton is poorly managed. There are no locks on entrances or exits, allowing anybody to come and go. There are absentee landlords who refuse to address substandard living conditions or enforce rules. There is minimal accountability and the consequences show in blighted buildings and desperate tenants.
It also comes down to a little education and understanding on behalf of naysayers that affordable housing isn’t just targeted toward lazy people who don’t want to look for work and are looking for a handout. This is housing targeted toward individuals and families with real needs. It’s a task in itself to apply for and receive an affordable unit, requiring extensive personal paperwork and documentation. This housing is meant for teachers, service providers and one-income households. As housing prices continue to soar in the Bay Area, pushing people out of their homes, the Central Valley can expect serious population gains over the next few decades and with increasing demand comes increased housing prices.
So, what do affordable developments, like Cal-Weber 40, mean for downtown Stockton? It means people. It means the start of a constant presence our downtown so drastically needs so that when 5 p.m. hits, the area doesn’t become a ghost town.
For many other downtowns successfully navigating the revitalization process (Sacramento is a good local example), many of the first developments to hit were mixed-use affordable communities as nonprofit developers were the only ones willing to take that first risky step. These developments provided that 24-hour population presence and encouraged others from around the area to come and utilize the ground-floor commercial uses – things like restaurants, grocery stores and retail. Once you get life back into the lungs of the downtown core, market rate developers and others will come knocking and additional investment will begin.
So, affordable housing in itself does not detract from successful community development. Rather, if constructed and managed appropriately, affordable housing can become a community asset, providing hardworking families and individuals with quality housing and services. When coupled with a commercial component, the development can have far-reaching effects by attracting people from all over the city. Stockton and the rest of the Central Valley need to be progressive in how we plan to house our current and future residents. Everyone, regardless of how much money one makes, deserves a safe, clean, and affordable place to call home and why shouldn’t that be Stockton?