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Our View: Housing semantics

The words we use to talk about housing matter

A Herald reader wrote recently of the semantics of housing, pointing out the many ways housing for people of low-to-moderate incomes has been described over the years.

“It used to be called ‘low-rent,’ then ‘low-cost,’ then ‘affordable’ and now ‘attainable’ housing. They mean pretty much the same thing,” wrote Larry Whiteside of Bayfield.

“Affordable housing” became the popular phraseology in the 1980s, two decades after the federal government began building subsidized housing. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has long described “affordable” housing as housing that costs 30% or less of household income.

For a family in which two parents work at full-time jobs paying $15 an hour, “affordable” housing in terms of gross income would be $1,660 plus bills such as utilities.

Imagine finding a home, even a small apartment, in the Durango area for a family of four for that amount. Now imagine paying for child care so both parents can work full time. And then imagine how much excess take-home pay would be available for small items such as, say, groceries, transportation or health care. Forget saving, of course.

Affordable housing simply doesn’t exist in Durango, except for very limited government-subsidized housing and transitional housing alternatives now being built (and also largely government-funded). Our town is limited in growth by its narrow river valley and, of course, its beauty and livability make it very attractive.

These problems exist throughout the country, not just in Durango.

Realizing just how ludicrous that “affordable housing” idea is, housing folks have begun using the phrase “attainable,” which avoids the idea of what people can really afford, instead approaching it solely from the perspective of income. “Attainable” most often means unsubsidized, profitable housing developments that meet the needs of those with incomes between 80% and 120% of the area median income. Hmmm.

Area household median income for La Plata County is $68,685, in 2019 dollars, according to the U.S. Census. Per capita area median income (sorry if you’re single!) is $39,493 (calculated from 2015-2019 by the Census Bureau).

Not really any “attainable” housing around here, either. Those who earn below that 80% of the area median certainly couldn’t qualify for a median-priced home loan in Durango; guess they still need “affordable” housing.

Which brings us to another popular phrase: “workforce housing.” This is usually defined as housing intended to meet the needs of workers including teachers, firefighters, law enforcement officers, medical workers, etc. – single- or multifamily housing for households with earned income that is insufficient to secure quality housing in reasonable proximity to the workplace.

Not enough of that, either, in Durango. Or in Mancos, or Cortez, or Bayfield, or anywhere else within reasonable driving distance for those who work in Durango.

These are the issues plaguing our local governments, people who sincerely want to find ways to make housing reachable, especially for those “essential workers” (another new term!) who need what is called “workforce housing.”

But what about those who don’t or can’t work? Ordinary folks on fixed incomes, the elderly, the disabled, including some veterans? Don’t they deserve housing, too?

The semantics of housing issues tell the whole story. Maybe it’s time we stopped using this kind of pejorative language and instead called the need what it is: human housing. A safe, decent place to live for a reasonable amount of money.

Making reasonably priced housing available in and around Durango is not just a way to make sure we’ve got workers at the hospital, in the schools and in government jobs, waiting tables and repairing our vehicles. It’s about creating and sustaining community.

So when we talk about housing issues, perhaps we should add an “e.” Let’s call it what it really is: humane housing.

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