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Oxford, a great place to live?

By James Thomas

Oxford, Mississippi: “A great place to live.” A strong local school system and a vibrant arts and music scene prove powerful for attracting new residents.

The presence of Mississippi’s flagship university, and its emphasis on the importance of knowledge, free speech, fairness, and respect for democracy, strengthens our relationship with our community and each other. Yet, behind this veneer, a storm is brewing. Low wages coupled with rising costs of living and the erosion of the social safety net mean that for many, the best of Oxford remains beyond their reach. At the center of Oxford’s rising inequality is an affordable housing crisis.

Examining data from the U.S. Bureau of the Census and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), a recent report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition documents America’s growing gap between its wages and its housing costs. The key takeaway? There is not a single county in America in which a minimum-wage worker can afford a modest two-bedroom home. Indeed, there are only twelve counties in the entire nation in which a minimum-wage worker can afford a modest one-bedroom home.

HUD defines affordable housing as housing that costs less than 30 percent of a household’s annual income. This includes rent or mortgage, plus utilities. Households who pay more than 30 percent of their income toward housing are housing-burdened. Households who pay more than 50 percent of their income toward housing are severely housing-burdened.

In Oxford, roughly 62 percent of renting households are housing-burdened. 45 percent of all renting households are severely housing-burdened.

So, what does it take to live in Oxford?

If affordable housing is housing that costs less than 30 percent of a person’s annual income, then a housing wage is the hourly wage a full-time worker must earn to afford housing without spending more than 30 percent of his or her income on its costs.

In Lafayette County, a full-time worker needs to earn nearly $15 per hour to afford a modest one-bedroom home. For a modest two-bedroom home, a full-time worker needs to earn nearly $18 per hour. Full-time minimum-wage workers would need to work 83 hours per week to afford a modest one-bedroom home. For a modest two-bedroom home, they would need to work 98 hours per week.

Though Oxford enjoys higher median incomes than most of Mississippi, a significant number of our neighbors fall well short of what it takes to afford to live here. More than half of all Oxford households earn less than $35,000 per year. 4 in 10 households earn less than $20,000 per year. Of all owner-occupied homes in Oxford, only 28 percent are valued at less than $150,000, and only 1 in 5 are valued at less than $100,000. Across Oxford, rising housing costs coupled with low wages are not just stretching the financial capacity of our community.

They are tearing us apart.

If you’ve been paying attention this past year to our community’s conversation on affordable housing, you’ve likely heard the term ‘inclusionary zoning.’ These policies help ensure that new housing developments include affordable units within them.

While I am in favor of inclusionary zoning as one tool for making housing more affordable, on its own it is not enough. Most inclusionary zoning policies set aside only 5 or 10 percent of a new development for low- and moderate-income families. Yet, the need for affordable housing is much greater than this. And, if not careful in their design, these policies pit moderate-income families against low-income families for a limited housing stock.

What we need to solve our housing crisis is a fundamental shift in how we think and talk about housing. For most, housing falls under the realm of the magical ‘market’. Talk to lenders and developers, and they’ll suggest prices are high because demand is high. Talk to city planners, and they’ll suggest a ‘market-based solution’. Both fail to recognize the market is the principle reason why we have a crisis in the first place.

As an alternative, I want to suggest something radical — housing is not a commodity. Housing is a basic human right, and something we all need to reach our full potential. Every member of our community, but especially our most disadvantaged, has a right to reach their full potential. All of us, even the most impoverished, have a right to participate in, and partake of, all that Oxford has to offer.

Housing is the most basic way to secure these rights. Without affordable housing, the opportunity to become, or remain, a ‘great place to live’ disappears. The question, then, is not what can we do to help the market? The question is, what can we do to help our neighbors?

James Thomas is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Mississippi.