What Is Affordable Housing? Brunswick, MD Tries To Solve A Problem It Can’t Define

Brunswick, MD photo by Emily is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
Brunswick, Frederick County, Maryland

In Frederick County, Maryland, the small town of Brunswick’s attempts to solve an affordable housing crisis are a microcosm of a problem facing municipalities of many sizes in many countries. Their task is made more difficult by a rapidly multiplying series of alternate realities that would pretend to define affordable housing.

Why is a definition important? Because, depending on the definition chosen, Brunswick — indeed any community — may be spending time, effort and taxpayer dollars supporting an affordable housing ‘alternate reality’ that does not necessarily satisfy their greatest community needs.

At a single housing unit level, ‘affordability’ is simple. It exists clearly in the expectations and the wallets of the beholder — a prospective renter or purchaser. At this level, all housing is both affordable and unaffordable, depending on who you are. Even multi-millionaires hopefully cruise open houses of multi-million dollar houses they can’t afford.

Does Brunswick wish to subsidize affordable housing for multi-millionaires with hopes and dreams bigger than their heavy wallets? An easy ‘no’ to this question masks a much more troubling one.

In deciding their priorities, governments such as city councils must make broader definitions of affordability in order to determine which ‘classes’ of people are most in need of assistance. And these days, at virtually every level that is more affordable than a luxury home on offer the very rich, there are competing ideas about broad working definitions of affordable housing.

Take the ideas and activities of groups working to address affordability problems in Brunswick, as detailed in an article below.

The photo which leads the story depicts workers in a food bank. This accords with the most common worldwide definition of affordability, based on the needs of the lowest paid workers as well as those who cannot work and must attempt to live on low, fixed or dwindling income. Many retirees, for example. The homeless, for another.

One might well expect that such a vision of affordability would be the target of the Frederick Country Affordable Housing Council, concerned with the welfare of the communities in the county such as Brunswick.

Absolutely not.

According to the chairman, Brunswick citizens don’t ‘get’ affordability. His definition of ‘incoming limiting brackets’ is drawn from the idea of ‘everything is both affordable and unaffordable, depending on the renter buyer.’  Whoops. Now ‘everybody’ needs affordable housing, and different levels of affordability can be bracketed for different wallets.

Is it then only fair that Brunswick subsidize many brackets of affordability, building housing at a price point where bracket expectations match bracket wallets?

Of one thing, Brunswick citizens can be sure. If the housing industry could be subsidized to build ‘affordable’ luxury housing for multi-millionaires, they would focus all their attention in this bracket, because it is in this bracket that they make the highest profits.

But the housing industry is at least pragmatic enough to realize that no community will ever subsidize housing for multi-millionaires.

What bracket would the housing industry prefer to build for? That which is the most expensive but which can still receive government subsidies or tax breaks.

Enter ‘workforce’ housing. Affordable Housing is ‘workforce’ housing, the chairman of the Frederick Country Affordable Housing Council assures us, choosing income brackets that range across low-middle class to middle-middle class.

All other brackets have been conveniently discarded.

Affordable housing is not ‘luxury housing bracket’ (naturally). But workforce housing is also not housing for the poorest workers, or for those who cannot work. An insignificant few? Well no. Half of the jobs in the state pay a wage below the income threshold under discussion.

The term ‘workforce’ is an out-and-out fraud that brackets only those income groups that can generate subsidies and that accord with housing industry construction interests. The industry is quite blatant about it as they wield their co-opted term ‘workforce’ in a discriminatory and racist manner.

“Affordable Housing is ‘not Section 8’ housing,” we are told. This dismisses an entire class of people in desperate need of housing they can afford, leaving them seriously at risk of homelessness. And out with the bathwater goes the working poor baby, whose family may be holding down two, three, four? jobs to make ends meet.

If the statements of the Frederick Country Affordable Housing Council Chairman are to define the nature of affordability for Brunswick, the town may soon discover that the working poor, excluded deliberately from the supposedly higher community importance of the ‘workforce’, are not as unnecessary to the community as the construction industry conveniently imagines.

For much more on the challenges to define and do battle with housing unaffordability in one small American town, read more in The Frederick News-Post: Organizations aim to ease financial struggles in Brunswick