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Affordable housing expert to speak Monday for CivicCon's speakers series

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Courtesy photo
Shane Phillips

Affordable housing is a hot topic all over the country, but since the pandemic, Florida is experiencing a much harder housing crunch than many other states. But is the affordable housing crisis a public or private issue? And what exactly is affordable housing?

These are some of the questions that will be tackled Monday, August 29 at the Rex Theater in downtown Pensacola, when CivicCon presents its latest speaker Shane Phillips. Phillips is a urban planner and policy expert based in Los Angeles. He currently manages the UCLA Lewis Center Housing Initiative, and teaches public policy as an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California.

Shane Phillips recently spoke with WUWF’s Bob Barrett about his book and about the fundamental question: What exactly is affordable housing?

Shane Phillips: That's an interesting place to start, because it varies a lot. And I actually have written about this exact topic. But I think there are really two ways that people define it. The way people within housing policy circles and the people I work with, what they usually mean when they refer to affordable housing is housing that is somehow rented for less than what the market would normally allow you to charge. So maybe there's a deed restriction that requires you to rent it to a very low income household, a household earning 50% of the area median income or less. So it's a very particular technocratic definition.

And then there's, of course, just affordable housing, as I think most people actually refer to it, which is just housing that they can afford. They don't care about whether it's subsidized, they don't care about whether it's owned by a private landlord or a nonprofit or public agency. They just want to know that it meets their needs and doesn't take up too much of their budget. So I think those are the two kind of ways of thinking about affordable housing.

Barrett: It's kind of like affordable housing is in the eye of the beholder.

Phillips: Yeah, we sometimes distinguish just by saying affordable housing, and then 'capital A' affordable housing. And that's the subsidized that's the deed restricted. It's the very specific kind.

Barrett: In your book, “The Affordable City,” you kind of break things up into supply, stability, and subsidy. How does that all come (under the umbrella of) affordable housing?

Phillips: Well, really, it comes down to the fact that the reasons housing is unaffordable in many places, and also the other needs we have in the housing market just vary a lot.

So, underlying housing affordability challenges in Pensacola and in cities all across the country is usually a supply problem. There are more people that want to live in the city. There are jobs coming in, but there are not enough homes to accommodate that rising demand, and therefore prices rise. And that's kind of a common occurrence in really any market.

But it's also true that people care about more than just how much they're paying for rent. They care about ‘will I know how much I'm going to pay for rent three years from now, a year from now? Will I even know that I will be able to continue living here if my landlord decides they just want to get rid of me for any reason or no reason at all? Do I have stability in that sense?’

And then subsidy is really about recognizing that, yes, we need to build a lot more housing in many places, to make sure that those market pressures are not pushing prices up. And yes, we need more stabilizing policies to make sure that people feel secure in their homes. But there are many people for whom the supply of housing, especially market housing, unsubsidized housing, and stability policies, will just not be enough. They have volatile incomes, their income is too low, and they're going to need some kind of assistance. This is especially true with people who are unhoused and need services, as well as maybe some rent assistance to get back into housing. So it's really about recognizing that all of these things are important, and different people will, in their work, in their advocacy, focus on different things. And that's perfectly okay.

You can be a supply person, you can be a stability person or a subsidy person, but you shouldn't, in the process of being that person, also be an anti something else. So if you're pro supply, you shouldn't be anti stability or anti subsidy, because you're going to be leaving a lot of people behind.

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Barrett: Your book came out in 2020. A lot has happened since 2020. Is there anything in there you'd like to say, ‘boy, I want to get that one back and take another shot’?

Phillips: I think it holds up pretty well. And I take pride in this, actually, that I have changed my views on things a little bit (on) certain policies. I don't think really COVID, and the housing impacts of that in particular have changed my views all that much. I guess, if anything, when I wrote the book, or I'll go back even further, before I was writing the book, when I started getting into housing policy, I really was a kind of supply person. And I still believe that's the fundamental problem in many places, that we just don't have enough homes relative to demand.

But over time, I've just gotten more and more and more appreciative of how important stability is and how much people who own their homes can take for granted the value of having stability and security and really just dignity in your housing. As a homeowner, the idea that you could just at any time be kicked out of your home, even if you're doing everything right, paying all your bills, just sounds insane. But that's how renters live all the time in most places. They don't know if they're going to face a 20% rent increase. They don't know if their landlord is going to evict them for whatever reason. And it's very hard to plan your life living like that. And especially given how hard it is to buy a home nowadays, many people don't have any alternative. And so I wouldn't say that I've really changed my views, but I feel even more strongly that the stability element is really important. And I also think that it's completely compatible with supply and subsidy as well.

Barrett: One thing the pandemic did do was cause a wave of migration to the state of Florida. Does a real influx of population, well, it's got to have a big effect on housing, doesn't it?

Phillips: Yes without question. And I think that does explain a lot of the rising prices we've seen in many places. Part of why the prices rise so sharply in many regions, in the suburbs in particular, is because, especially when people were very fearful about COVID early on, the more dense areas of places without your own private yard and that kind of thing, people felt like, well, if I had the resources to do so, I'm going to go find that. And that put a lot of pressure on that type of housing. Now, people are coming back to the cities very quickly and that's reversing somewhat. But that definitely had an impact.

Pensacola is an interesting case because I was reading Quint Studer's book and a little bit of the story of downtown Pensacola and the turnaround that it's experienced. And it's interesting how quickly that happened to go from a place where you're just struggling to bring in businesses and residents and hold on to the people you have where suddenly you have the exact opposite problem of almost too much demand or too popular, you're doing too well. And it's such a better problem to have ultimately, but it does require you to keep evolving. I think a lot of places, if they have the success that Pensacola has had, if they do turn things around, they think, well, we did these things. They brought us success. We should just keep on this path. But when places do that, they tend to stagnate in a different way. And instead of having problems with too little demand, suddenly they're kind of being overwhelmed by problems of too much because they're not prepared for it.

Barrett: The oddest thing is the turnaround can be pointed to Hurricane Ivan and just, we had to rebuild everything right over again. And they did it right.

Phillips: Yeah. I don't know how much research there is on this, but as an urbanist, someone who loves walking through cities, I didn't own a car for the past 13 years or so. I just bought one again in the past month, to my great shame. But I'm always thinking about cities and how they are designed and why certain cities are so great to walk and bike and take transit in. And you look at places in Europe that have a lot of these qualities, and the kind of dark truth is that in many of these places, they were flattened during one war or another. And so they sort of had a chance to rebuild from scratch. I'm certainly not advocating for flattening cities to be able to do that. But when you're looking for silver linings, that is sometimes a possibility. It lets you kind of re-envision things from a more fundamental level rather than just making incremental improvements.

Barrett: Yeah, flattening cities would be a bold take.

Phillips: It would, yes. That's not what I'm coming to Pensacola to recommend. (laughs)

Barrett: Is being a landlord just horrible?

Phillips: I don't think so. I actually am a landlord now, as of five years ago. I bought a duplex. I'm a very small time landlord, and here in Los Angeles, we have rent stabilization. So my tenant actually predates me in this building, and they pay about half of what I could charge on the market if they were not living here. And yet, frankly, I'm doing fine. I will say they're a very good tenant and they get no trouble. And I know that (with some) landlords that's not always the case. There are bad tenants. People do run into real trouble, and I think COVID has been a great example of that.

Obviously, the people who have suffered most from COVID in the housing market are renters, without question. But the truth is that landlords have also paid a price in some cases, and there have even been tenants who have taken advantage. And even if they could have paid, they didn't pay because they knew that they have these protections. So, I think of all the actors in the housing market, I tend to be most skeptical, and even at times disparaging toward landlords. But it's not anything against landlords per se, it's just their interests are often in opposition to renters.

Sometimes we have to, or very often we have to, choose who's going to win here, whose interests are going to win out. I'm not someone who thinks that we should just seize all property from landlords or anything like that. But I also do think that the scales have been tilted pretty far in favor of landlords for quite a while, and it would make sense to swing them back away.

Barrett: Has the housing market being affected in a way that's noticeable by short-term rentals?

Phillips: It very much depends on the market, and even within any given city, it's going to depend on the neighborhood. I'm sure in Pensacola, there are probably more short term rentals near the beach than there are further inland. So those short term rentals are going to account for a larger share of the units in certain neighborhoods, and you would expect that to have an impact.

I think there's no question that short term rentals have had an impact, especially when they are taking units fully off the market for long term rental. It's one thing to rent out your house when you're on vacation, which I think is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, or to rent out a room in your unit to people coming through on Airbnb or whatever. It's another thing to buy a property and just rent it solely to short term rentals, where before you would have had someone living in there, either owning it or leasing it long term.

And so, again, if we come back to the supply side of things, you're effectively reducing the supply of long term housing, and that is going to put some upward pressure on rents. So I'm a pretty big advocate for placing some pretty serious restrictions on these things. I think allowing people to just buy and rent out whole units year round is probably should not be allowed in most cities.

Barrett: So, probably a bigger problem in beach communities than Duluth.

Phillips: Yes, I think that's fair.

Barrett: Okay, well, finally, there are going to be housing problems for the foreseeable future, and I'm sure one size doesn't fit all. What kind of study is going into this?

Phillips: It's all I ever spend my time on, so you got me, at least. But, I mean, there are so many people working on this, and not just researchers, but city officials, public agencies, the private sector, trying all kinds of new things. There's a lot going into it, and I think you put your finger on it. There is no one answer. There is no silver bullet. That's really the message of my book, is if we try to do just one thing, we're going to fail. We really have to look at this problem holistically. And the truth is also, this housing crisis, if we think about it nationally, it took us 30, 40 years to get here. It didn't happen overnight. Certainly COVID made it worse, the Great Recession made it worse more than a decade ago. But we've been building this up for a long time, and it's going to take us time to get out of it as well.

We need to take short term actions, kind of stem the bleeding, treat the symptoms as we go at the same time as we work on these long term solutions that are going to take years, if not decades, to fully materialize.

Bob Barrett has been a radio broadcaster since the mid 1970s and has worked at stations from northern New York to south Florida and, oddly, has been able to make a living that way. He began work in public radio in 2001. Over the years he has produced nationally syndicated programs such as The Environment Show and The Health Show for Northeast Public Radio's National Productions.