Affordable Housing: Who Are ‘Those People’?

When I was asked to write an article about affordable housing, I considered a few things I could write about: the construction process, the economic impact and the community benefits. But then I realized, these all miss the true heart of the issue of affordable housing in the communities I work in. Numbers and research are important, but they are only symptoms of a larger problem. So, what’s the problem? In my opinion, the problem lies within the stigma surrounding those who live in affordable housing. 

So, let’s break through that stigma and find the real answer to the question: Who is affordable housing for? 

The U.S. and Affordable Housing

The affordable housing journey in the United States began in the 1930s with public housing. Remember reading “The Grapes of Wrath” in high school? Recall the families living in “Hoovervilles?” The government began providing public housing to those in need of shelter during the Great Depression. Although well-intentioned, public housing was not meeting the needs of the people. Public housing residents could only count on two things: 1) Substandard, often unsafe housing, and 2) Paying more than they could afford for said housing.

It wasn’t until 1966, when Senator Edward W. Brooke III, the first popularly elected African American U.S. Senator, came on the scene to help. In 1969, he worked to pass the Brooke Amendment, new laws to govern Public Housing Agencies. This legislation defined affordable housing as housing that does not cost more than 25% (later changed to 30%) of a person’s income. Over time, some argue that this amendment ruined public housing by decreasing the amount of income public housing authorities could collect from poor residents. However, others would argue that collecting more than 25-30% of a person’s income in rent would continue to contribute to poverty, but I digress.1

Affordable Housing Math

Senator Brooke, despite the controversy of the unintended impact of his legislation, gave us a math equation to help us understand who will need affordable housing. Very simply: Affordable Housing = Income * 30%.

Let’s take my city, Harrisburg, PA, as an example. The United States Census Bureau reports an annual median income (AMI) based on census responses. These are the averages individuals and families make in a year. In Harrisburg, PA, the average median income for a four-person household is $102,700.2 Using our 30% formula, a person who makes the average income in Harrisburg, PA should spend $30,810 per year or $2,567.50 per month.

If this family decides to purchase a home, they can expect to pay $230,000 (according to Realtor.com). Using Nerd Wallet,3 I calculated the monthly payment for the average home, priced at $230,000, and determined the monthly cost to be $1,599. Well under the $2,567 per month they can afford. If the family wants to rent, they can expect to pay $1,634 per month for a three-bedroom apartment, according to HUD’s Fair Market Rent4 tool. 

Affordability Gap Widens

But what happens if you don’t make 100% of the AMI? 

The same family of four, making 80% of AMI, generally makes $79,850 (yes, the numbers are a bit different than if you just multiply the average AMI by 80% due to the formula utilized by the federal government). Using the affordable housing calculation, 30% = $23,995 per year or $1,996.25/month. This family would be ok purchasing or renting a market rate home. If the same family of four only made 50% of AMI or $49,990, their available income for rent is $1,249.75/month. 

So, Who Needs Affordable Housing?

Now, we know that most of those in need of affordable housing fall at or below 50% AMI. These are the “Who” that live at the heart of the affordable housing crisis. The largest employment industry in the Harrisburg area is Healthcare and Social Assistance, according to Data USA.5 The average median earnings in this industry are $61,909, with a margin of error +/-$12,476. So, someone making the average income is only slightly above our 50% AMI and can only afford $1,548 per month. This means the average person living in the Harrisburg area, making the average salary in the most common field, is going to be rent burdened. 

The Reframe

So, remember the faces behind the statistics the next time someone says, “I work hard for my home, why put affordable housing here?”. These are nurses, teachers, construction workers–everyday people struggling to keep a roof over their heads. It is not about laziness or entitlement; it is about a broken system that does not prioritize accessible, affordable housing for all.

By dismantling the stigma and recognizing the true faces of the housing crisis, we can start building solutions that work for everyone. Affordable housing isn’t a handout; it is a lifeline for hardworking individuals and families who deserve a safe, secure place to call home.

  1. https://www.forbes.com/sites/howardhusock/2015/01/08/how-senator-brooke-helped-destroy-public-housing/?sh=384c80f23fc ↩︎
  2. https://www.huduser.gov/portal/datasets/il/il2023/2023summary.odn?inputname=METRO25420M25420*Harrisburg-Carlisle%2C+PA+MSA&wherefrom=%24wherefrom%24&selection_type=hmfa&year=2023 ↩︎
  3. https://www.nerdwallet.com/mortgages/mortgage-calculator/pennsylvania ↩︎
  4. 2024 FMRs ↩︎
  5. https://datausa.io/profile/geo/harrisburg-pa#:~:text=The%20largest%20industries%20in%20Harrisburg,Forestry%2C%20Fishing%20%26%20Hunting%2C%20%26 ↩︎

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