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Housing panelists explore unit supply, quality and cost

Xavier de Souza Briggs
Xavier de Souza Briggs
Ari Goldstein
Ari Goldstein

Students and off-campus visitors who gathered for the third session of the Affordable Housing Forum heard that, despite the much-ballyhooed "slump" of the real estate market, the total value of housing stock in the United States is around $20 trillion--down only a trillion or two from a few years ago--and most Americans are pretty well housed.

Two panelists, Xavier de Souza Briggs, associate professor of urban studies and planning, and William C. Apgar Jr., senior scholar at Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies, discussed the state of the nation's housing and what national housing policy should be in the session, held in Room 10-485 on Oct. 23. The evening event was organized by the MIT Housing Group, a new student organization launched this year.

Although the panelists agreed Americans are relatively well housed, they also noted that millions of the working poor find that the high cost of housing consumes most of their income. Who in such circumstances can afford health insurance on the pocket change left over after the rent is paid--or a new set of wheels with which to seek a better job?

Briggs, who is also editor of the 2005 book, "The Geography of Opportunity: Race and Housing Choice in Metropolitan America," identified three key problems on the current housing scene:

  •  Unit quality: "We would love to think this is a bygone problem … but in fact substandard housing is still a striking problem." He compared the situation in Los Angeles, for instance, with its large populations of immigrants and day laborers, to what is found in parts of the developing world.
  •  Affordability: It's not a problem everywhere, but where it is, it's serious, Briggs said. "You've got an outrageously bad problem in a few dozen of the fastest-growing or otherwise most important metro areas in this country," he said.
  •  "Spatial concentration" of affordable housing or, at its extreme, "ghettoization": Local zoning regulations simply exclude many types of affordable housing from certain jurisdictions. And research has shown that racial and ethnic discrimination is still very much a problem, Briggs said. "It's not the brute, overt discrimination of years past. It's more subtle. Some people may not even know they've been the victims."

On the positive side of the ledger, Briggs identified some hopeful signs that local politicians, even in some traditionally conservative communities, are acting to ease the affordability crisis. He told, for instance, of going to Orange County, Calif., to "meet face to face with the America that needs to be converted" and finding surprising receptivity to "density bonuses," which can help hold housing prices in check.

Both Briggs and Apgar, a former Clinton administration colleague of Briggs's, attacked the "ideology of homeownership."

Homeownership has been given too much credit, they said, for creating stable neighborhoods and better citizens. Rather, the panelists maintained, stable housing is what makes a difference, and that may well be rental housing. But in the overheated housing market of the past few years, many people were pushed into mortgage commitments they weren't really ready for.

The MIT Housing Group was launched this year by Ari Goldstein, a master's student in city planning who is to graduate this spring. "We're hoping that MIT will continue to produce leaders in housing design, policy and development," he explained in an interview before the Briggs-Apgar panel. "I started the group because I felt a need that wasn't being filled."

Goldstein, who comes to MIT after some time working on housing issues for New York City, sees a lot of potential in the cross-pollination across the disciplines represented by the group, which has attracted about 50 students, with a solid core of about 20. To ensure continuity into next year, the group is set to elect Erica Sims, an M.B.A. candidate at the Sloan School, as co-chair at its next meeting.

"Student initiative is incredibly important in this area," said Briggs, who predicted that the student group will have an effect on campus.

"Housing is a tremendously broad and constantly evolving area, one that touches every major public issue and some of humanity's deepest values and institutions: community, family, security, aesthetics, status and success, access to opportunity," he said.

"It's crucial to have students working together, across specialties, as they prepare for careers that can help redefine housing's future around the globe. I expect it will encourage significant curriculum innovations at MIT as well."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 1, 2006 (download PDF).

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