How Do we Win Permanently Affordable housing?
Co-op City, in the Bronx NYC, is a Limited Equity Cooperative that stands on a Community Land Trust. With almost 50,000 residents, It is also the largest housing cooperative in the world.
Source: Alfred Twu
1 DeSilver, Drew. “For Most Americans, Real Wages Have Barely Budged for Decades.” Pew Research Center. May 30, 2020. Accessed February 20, 2021.
2 Gowan, Peter, and Ryan Cooper. Social Housing In The United States. People’s Policy Project. Peoplespolicyproject.org. Accessed February 20, 2021. 3 The State of the Nation’s Housing 2018. Report. Joint Center for Housing Studies, Harvard University.
4 “Experts Say California Needs to Build a Lot More Housing. But the Public Disagrees.” Los Angeles Times. October 21, 2018. Accessed February 20, 2021.
5 Rick Jacobus. “Why Voters Haven’t Been Buying the Case for Building.” Shelterforce. July 22, 2020. Accessed February 20, 2021.
7 Zuk, Miriam, and Karen Chapple. Housing Production, Filtering, and Displacement: Untangling the Relationships. Report. IGS, University of California Berkeley.
8 Alicia Mazzara Senior Research Analyst. “Rents Have Risen More Than Incomes in Nearly Every State Since 2001.” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. December 10, 2019. Accessed February 20, 2021.
13 For much more detailed information on Limited Equity Cooperatives: https://homesforall.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Communities-Over-Commodities_Full-Report.pdf
14 For much more detailed information on Community Land Trusts: https:homesforall.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Communities-Over-Commodities_Full-Report.pdf
The COVID-19 crisis is showing us, once more, that our housing industry does not meet the needs of most working Americans. Stagnating wages, student debt, and rising prices have squashed many young people’s dreams of ever owning a home. Meanwhile, predatory lending schemes ripped homeownership away from millions of Americans (especially black Americans) in 2008. Accordingly, since 2008, the number of American renters has increased by about 9 million people. And while we have continued to build more rental housing (the largest share is luxury housing), the price of rental housing continues to increase – while wages stagnate. In 2007, 8 million households were rent burdened (spending 30-50% or of income on rent). In 2017, the number was 9.8. The number of severely rent-burdened tenants (50% or more of income on rent) has also increased from 9 to 11 million during that time. Taken together, these burdened renters accounted for 47% of all renters in the US in 2017. Likewise, the Urban Institute has identified roughly 11.8 million extremely low income (ELI) renter households and only enough “adequate, affordable, and available housing” for 46% of them – even accounting for subsidy programs.
Clearly, we have a massive housing crisis, and while helpful, we hardly need the data to prove it. If you are anything but the wealthiest of Americans, it probably feels obvious that rent is too high, and homeownership is a pipe dream. But what do we do? We have lost 2.5 million affordable rental units since 1990, and that number is only increasing. How do we reverse this trend?
"JUST BUILD MORE HOUSING"
Academics, journalists, politicians, and planners frequently offer answers, and perhaps the most popular answer is, simply: “there’s not enough housing." These, usually self-identified, YIMBYs (Yes [more housing], In My Back Yard) argue that it is a simple equation of supply and demand. Their idea is this: housing prices are too high because of scarcity. If we simply build a lot more housing, the market will respond, and housing will “filter” down even to the poorest Americans. My description here is simplistic, and many YIMBYs have differences in their strategies. However, their core principle is generally: “just build more housing.”
The YIMBY argument feels intuitive for anyone who has taken Econ 101. If we can rapidly increase the supply of homes, that should drive prices down. Even building the recently popular “luxury” housing should create cascading effects that result in cheaper housing all the way down to the most affordable units. Taken from a basic economics textbook perspective, this makes sense. But a recent survey suggests that for most Americans, it does not. And there seems to be good reason.
An LA Times survey in 2018 shows only 13% of eligible California voters believe that too little home building was the primary reason for lack of home affordability. Instead, “lack of rent control” and “lack of low-income housing” top the list. Are these voters simply missing something? Or are they intuitively understanding something that Econ 101 does not? Very likely, it is the latter. While YIMBYs are not entirely wrong, an intuitive Econ 101 view of the housing market is warped. The housing market is complex, and it is wildly segmented based on price-point, neighborhood, size, demographics, access to transit, safety, and a massive host of other considerations. Adding more homes to one segment (e.g. luxury housing) may have absolutely no impact on the affordability of homes outside of that segment. For instance, adding more luxury student housing in University City, Philadelphia may have absolutely no impact on more affordable family housing in West Philadelphia. Similarly, adding center city apartments may have no impact on the price of more affordable housing in city outskirts.
Simply put, we do not know these impacts. There is no evidence to show that housing substantially filters between different market segments. Moreover, even when filtering does have a measurable effect, it often takes far too long to have a substantial impact on the affordable housing supply. This is not to deride YIMBYs. We do need to continue building more housing. However, it is critical that we lead with “who is this housing for?” Clearly, it is not enough to lean on Econ 101 while rents increase and wages fall for struggling working people. We need a plan to directly increase the supply of affordable housing while simultaneously pushing all prices down.
PERMANENTLY AFFORDABLE HOUSING MUST COME FROM THE ORGANIZED POWER OF WORKING PEOPLE
So, how do we create permanently affordable housing? Today, affordable housing is primarily provided through Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC), inclusionary zoning, and quickly fading public housing projects. The federal and local governments also invest in rental assistance programs – Section 8 being the largest. While these programs are critical for the low-income tenants who rely on them, they are woefully inadequate. Most notably, virtually all these programs do not provide permanently affordable housing. LIHTC and inclusionary zoning rent caps expire, and the rent caps are often much higher than what low-income tenants can afford. Likewise, public housing has been systematically underfunded and disinvested, and landlords can always opt out of Section 8.
Without delving too much into the historic politics of affordable housing, our current government housing programs are pretty bad and unlikely to improve much. Republican administrations have been generally hostile toward public welfare spending and even Democratic administrations have done surprisingly little to increase the supply of affordable housing. Some local governments have had much more success, but the funding and scale of these projects are often severely limited. And, crucially, many elected officials who campaign on affordable housing promises never deliver.
Representatives, activists, and organizations are doing impressive and important work to push critical policy reforms like rent control, funding for affordable housing, and zoning changes. However, we must consider that we cannot rely on electoral politics alone to push the policy changes we need. Elections cost mind-boggling amounts of money, and they effectively risk all those resources on a gamble. Will the representative win? Will the representative follow through with their promises? Will the representative have enough power to do anything? Total spending for the 2020 elections reached almost 14 billion in 2020. For a comparison, total LIHTC spending in 2017 was only $8 billion. Elections are certainly important, but we cannot place all our resources and energy on gambles. We must consider pouring just as much (if not more) effort into direct action that gives power to the people needing housing – instead of giving power away to a representative.
This is a profound distinction. Consider LIHTC, Section 8, and inclusionary zoning, and – more generally – fighting for policy reforms. With all of these, an anti-public welfare administration or Congress could instantly strip massive amounts of funding and availability without consent from the working people who need that housing. Now, consider an affordable housing community in which the renters collectively own the equity to the community. Or consider a group of organized tenants who can strike when their landlord raises their rent during a pandemic. Or consider a housing model where ownership of housing is separated from ownership of the land under it – so developers are barred from speculating on the land under the affordable housing. In all these models, people have the power to keep their housing affordable in perpetuity. And these are not pipe dreams. These models exist in the United States.
LIMITED EQUITY COOPERATIVES 
Limited Equity Cooperatives are a model of affordable cooperative housing where member-residents jointly own equity in their building (or development), have democratic control, and benefit socially and economically from the cooperative. LEC households are shareholders of a corporation that owns the LEC, they have exclusive right to the unit, democratically control the LEC, and their right to occupancy is secured through proprietary leases. Generally, these leases protect against unjust eviction, secure 99-year occupancy, and place specific restrictions on resale.
In essence, LECs are more traditional housing cooperatives that have existed in the United States for decades. Some of the most famous cooperative housing developments are LECs and many remain permanently affordable to this day (most notably: The Amalgamated Housing Cooperative in NYC).
COMMUNITY LAND TRUSTS 
Community Land Trusts are more modern affordable housing models that are based on dual-ownership – separating the ownership of the land from the ownership of the housing itself. A non-profit organization holds ownership of the land, taking it off the market permanently, and individuals or cooperatives own the housing itself. Usually, the individuals being housed form most of the non-profit’s board of directors. Like LECs, residents have leases of 99 years and resale equity is limited by governing policy.
CLTs, while newer and much less common than LECs, are usually more protected long-term. Separating land ownership and placing it under control of a nonprofit ensures that the land will not be speculated on in perpetuity.
TENANTS UNIONS AND MUTUAL AID
Lastly, and critically, the most powerful tools lie outside of models and laws. We limit ourselves by believing that power lies in legal tools or elections. Our most powerful tool has always been and will always be large, organized groups of people. The most important worker protections and human safety protections of this century were achieved by organized labor. Labor unions can strike from work, and tenants unions can strike from paying rent. Organized residents have the power to transform our housing landscape.
This work is already beginning in Philadelphia with the Philadelphia Tenants Union, Renters United (Inquilinxs en La Lucha Philadelphia), and other connected organizations. Similarly, labor unions like Unite Here (Local 274) are developing housing funds to create housing cooperatives for their working members. This work is just beginning, and there is no better time to start organizing with your fellow tenants and workers. Imagine a Philadelphia where groups of organized tenants could withhold rent from landlords who increased the price during COVID-19. Imagine a Philadelphia where massive mutual aid networks could directly support tenants with maintenance, repairs, or legal help when landlords were neglectful or abusive. Imagine a Philadelphia where these unions and mutual aid networks could begin sponsoring LECs and CLTs to create permanently affordable housing for their tenants.
All these tools are available to us. Yes, they can be expensive. Yes, they are difficult to create and maintain. But as we have seen, placing all our eggs in the electoral basket or simple inaction are not working. Housing costs are continuing to increase, and our elected leaders are not doing enough to stop or reverse them. The Unite States – especially New York and Philadelphia – have a rich history of cooperative, union-supported housing, housing mutual aid networks, and collective tenant action. It is now time for us to draw on that history and modern legal tools to start creating permanently affordable housing at the ground level.
By Cade Underwood
Cade Underwood is a dual degree Master of City Planning and Law School student with a concentration in Housing and Community Economic Development. Cade focuses his studies on cooperative economies, community ownership, and working people holding the power to their housing and labor.
This photo, taken in Philadelphia on Benjamin Franklin Boulevard, shows housing activists organizing to demand housing from the City. This encampment was operated and occupied for months and eventually ended when the City of Philadelphia promised 50 vacant homes to be placed in a Community Land Trust for Philadelphians experiencing homelessness.
Source: Michael Stokes
9 Gowan, Peter, and Ryan Cooper. Social Housing In The United States. People’s Policy Project. Peoplespolicyproject.org. Accessed February 20, 2021. www.peoplespolicyproject.org.
10 “Obameter.” PolitiFact. Accessed February 20, 2021.
11 Brian Schwartz. “Total 2020 Election Spending to Hit Nearly $14 Billion, More than Double 2016’s Sum.” CNBC. November 02, 2020. Accessed February 20, 2021. 12 “Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC): HUD USER.” Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) | HUD USER. Accessed February 20, 2021.
Cooperative housing, whether modeled as Community Land Trusts or Limited Equity Cooperatives, is owned and run by the people who live there. When residents hold the cooperative power to their own housing, they can resist speculation, displacement, and gentrification.
Source: Sustainable Economies Law Center
Across the country, organizers are fighting to secure housing for all.