Habitat for Humanity Middle Class Follies: None Too Impressive?

Waterfront picture of Wilmington North Carolina
Wilmington, NC photo by Kaya is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Wilmington, North Carolina, where Habitat for Humanity struggles to fulfill its mission to provide homes for people with the lowest incomes.

Housing For Humanity: a world-beating affordable housing charity now approaching middle age, which is no longer able capable of keeping up with the changing times?

We certainly hope not. But there are worrisome signs.

During a discourse on gentrification in Wilmington, North Carolina, Steven Spain, executive Director of Cape Spear Habitat for Humanity, revealed some of the thinking that sees their organization pursuing building middle-class-focused mixed housing developments.

Oh yes, mixed developments these days can present themselves as ‘affordable,’ but that’s because the term ‘affordability’ has been re-defined to include large swaths of the middle class. Funding agencies have given this interpretation (misinterpretation?) credence by bending their assistance in this direction, supported by the evidence that ranks the social benefits of ‘mixed-class’ developments over the mundane physical one of simply having a roof overhead.

In truth, when all is said and done, mere handfuls of truly affordable housing — completely inadequate to . . . most? all? . . . municipal needs — are delivered by these mixed-class projects.

Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LITHC) are at the core of federal support for affordable housing. This program has two major long-term problems:

  • LITHC is temporary. Affordable units can revert to market rents after a period of time.
  • LITHC depends on private industry deciding it is in their interest to opt in. If developers see no opportunity for profit from a housing development, the tag-along truly affordable housing doesn’t get built, whether it is needed or not.

Why is Habitat, a charitable organization renowned for its housing service to the world’s most needy, supporting a funding model that serves developer pocketbooks far better than the people with very low incomes who need housing that is affordable?

Steven Spain’s answer: “I don’t want to see all the affordable housing go away.”

This echoes a recent article published recently about the Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority’s housing program. Authority representatives frankly admit they are, and will continue to, demolish their public housing projects that provide housing for the most vulnerable. There is also resignation in Columbus that as a result, the city must respond to the federal funding imperative and take the little ‘affordable’ funding it can generate. Try: Driving 100 Years Down The Road With Low Income Housing Tax Credits

It’s easy to find reasons why a city becomes an enabler in a fatally flawed federal funding (4F) system, where support for the truly needy is eroding even as housing crises mushroom for households with the lowest incomes.

But Habitat? Surely this fabled housing charity should take a leadership role, rather than as a follower and enabler.

We can understand why a mature agency might look to survive by peddling its housing expertise, rather than its housing mission. But we hate to think that Habitat has reached the point of casting about to find ways to survive simply for survival’s sake.

Are there other roles Habitat could undertake instead of fellow-travelling with, and thereby giving credence to, a funding system that isn’t working?

Steve Spain touts improving the current Housing Choice (section 8) voucher program as important step forward.

Habitat could support that with a little change of focus to its mission. And do so with its head held high, by taking a leaf from a recent section 8 pilot project in Seattle.

The results showed that section 8 recipients encounter multiple barriers when trying to use their voucher and find housing. However, providing human support can dramatically improve the success of this program.

Staffing support programs costs money. Lots of room here for an agency with an incredible record of success in recruiting and retaining volunteers! Try: Seattle Does The Section 8 Two-Step: A Vastly Improved Housing Voucher Plan

For the views of one Habitat for Humanity executive director (Habitat is far from a monolithic organization), read more in PortCityDaily: Habitat For Humanity Talks Gentrification And Affordable Housing In Castle Street Area