Yesterday, Where featured a post about a proposed development in Albany that would provide affordable urban artist housing while providing valuable cultural services to the existing community by having the residents create and teach free and low-cost art classes, building a community service program into the rental agreement. But artistic development is not the only service that could be programmed into a housing development. In fact, when tax revenue is being used to stimulate the economy and efficiency has become the golden rule, programmed housing stands to give taxpayers a lot of bang for their buck by tackling multiple social problems at the same time.
Foreclosures have become headline news over the past year, and affordable housing has rocketed from being an oft-maligned political quagmire to being an oft-maligned political quagmire in the national spotlight. Public opinion of public and affordable housing is, as Where has argued before, not anywhere near as high as it needs to be at a time when millions of people are in dire need of a place to stay. The central problem here, from a PR perspective, seems to be that Americans assume all residents of public housing are lazy, riding on the government's coattails to avoid working or paying rent. Of course, access to jobs is one of the central reasons for why people actually need affordable housing, particularly in urban areas. Irony is, as the saying goes, a bitch.
To complicate matters further, the Brookings Institution announced the results of a new study on what they have termed "job sprawl" earlier this week. The study confirmed what many already knew: jobs have followed people out to the suburbs. Nearly every city in America has seen its share of the total metro population shrink drastically over the past half century, and now Brookings has hard numbers to illustrate just how drastically this has affected those cities' share of the job market, as well.
According to the study, the Virginia Beach-Norfolk metro area has the highest percentage of residents working within a mile of the city's central business district, at just 36.4%. New York City, with its infamous hyper-concentration of office space, only managed to come in second with just 34.8% of the metro workforce commuting to its CBD each day. That means that, in the best cases, only a third of people are working in downtown areas, which inevitably have the highest concentration of transportation options.
Transportation is the glue that binds these two problems -- a lack of affordable housing and access to increasingly spread-out job opportunities -- together. Affordable housing is only useful to workers if it is available in a location that allows them reasonable commute times to places where jobs are actually available. Many people in the States are finding themselves rather suddenly without a job or a home, much less the funds to drive around the city looking for either, or to drive an hour each way every day to work a part-time job for $8 an hour (if that).
With the need for affordable housing at an all-time high and urbanists hoping for a stimulus-funded urban renaissance, it only makes sense that we should be presenting decision makers at the Federal level with projects, like Albany's Academy Lofts, that can weave solutions to multiple problems together as efficiently and creatively as possible. Programmed housing has the potential to provide job-seekers with affordable housing while simultaneously providing them with an opportunity to continue building work experience, through participation in community programs, while they continue their search for paid gainful employment. Not only that, but since the work done at programmed housing developments would be on-site, transit costs would be accordingly lowered for residents.
The arts are an obvious starting point, but there's no reason why housing developments couldn't be built around legal clinics to provide students fresh out of law school (and saddled with the accordant debt) with a chance to cut their teeth, or around community centers offering technology classes and computer repair services. Programmed housing could be easily tailored to be double assets; by placing such developments in targeted urban neighborhoods where a lack of certain services was identified, these developments would help both the new residents and the existing communities toward economic recovery.
Programmed housing may not be a sure-fire scheme (a potential downside: turnover could make for some very ineffective services), but tying solutions to jobs, housing, and transit challenges together -- particularly in urban areas -- is certainly the most effective way to use stimulus funds. If we're not talking about multiple solutions at once, we're not really talking about a solution at all.
(Photo from Flickr users The Voice of Eye and your_nostalgia, and from Where@FFFFOUND!. The originals can be viewed by clicking the photos.)