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Our ‘affordable’ housing dilemma

By TJ Ray

A few days ago these pages carried a column that highlighted the need for rental space that average folks can afford. That essay was a welcome addition to the theme song of “affordable housing” that many people like to sing. Actually, the word “affordable” has become a political football. Similar to the weather, everyone has an opinion but nobody can do anything about it.

Consider yet another way to characterize housing costs in our community:  There is not a single property for sale in the City or the County that is not affordable. And that is true from the mini-castles out in Steeplechase to the condos in that death valley intersection of the ugly building down the hill behind Neilson’s.  Let me say it again:  every place to live in our area is affordable.

No, I didn’t say everyone can afford any place of choice.  “Affordable” is easily defined as “the resources available to an individual to make a purchase.” Sadly, for some of our citizens a canvas tent might exceed their wherewithal. For others, finances afford some luxurious pads to crash in on the ball game and other special weekends.

Banks and lending institutions have complex formulas used to compute the price of a property directly related to resources of the potential buyer. A certain percentage of salary. A number of people in a family who work. Debts already owed. Watching those calculations, one comes to see that in the end every buyer ends up with a loan for what he or she can afford. Of course, one fly in the ointment is that often there is a Grand Canyon chasm between what the land seller wants and what a bank will finance.

Perhaps when the conversation picks up about affordable housing, someone should stand up and say, “Stop right now and define the buyer you have in mind!” A person driving a Lexus or a Mercedes may be the target you have in mind, but do the same conditions for that person apply to someone making minimum hourly wages?

In a recent public discussion of housing, someone observed that a $165,000 house was affordable.  My reflex is to say, “You’re dreaming.”

Over and over one hears the complaint that housing would be more attainable if the land were not so cheap. When I drive through Avent Acres or past the Katrina cottages south of town, I always marvel that such places could be built at reasonable cost. But (yes, there is a But as usual) the cost of most land is so extreme that a builder who needs to make a profit to justify his efforts simply can’t put up those kinds of places, even though they might well meet the housing needs of many people.

What will it take to have affordable housing for the hundreds of folks who now find such housing only by commuting from neighboring counties to work in Lafayette County and Oxford? One solution would be to identify a developer who could build subdivisions on land that doesn’t cost a king’s ransom per acre. Another solution might be to require developers to include a certain percentage of new homes at much lower prices than others. Such a suggestion has been aired.  Push it too far, and there will be no developers.

One other possibility might be to find public land and make it available to builders interested in cottages or post-war housing such as Avent Acres.

TJ Ray is a retired professor of English at Ole Miss.