'Affordable Housing' as Metaphor

60 Pages Posted: 19 Aug 2016 Last revised: 5 Sep 2017

See all articles by Steven Eagle

Steven Eagle

George Mason University - Antonin Scalia Law School, Faculty

Date Written: August 16, 2016


This Article examines the varying and often-conflicting meanings and goals ascribed to the term “affordable housing.” It asserts that the term often serves as a metaphor; it obscures rather than clarifies, and contributes to the intractability of problems pertaining to housing from any perspective. The Article further asserts that attempts to deal with what are termed affordable housing issues must realistically take into account the shelter, cultural, and economic needs of various populations, and also the effects of housing decisions on economic prosperity. Above all, the affordable housing metaphor is agreeable precisely because it defers responding to the need to make hard choices about priorities and funding.

Among proffered affordable housing goals are making available an ample supply of housing in different price ranges; attracting and retaining residents who contribute to the growth and economic prosperity of cities; and ensuring that neighborhood housing remains available for existing residents, while preserving their cultural values. Other goals include providing adequate housing in high-cost cities for low- and moderate- income individuals and families, and the overlapping concern for “fair housing” for persons of all races and backgrounds.

After considering these often conflicting goals, the Article examines the benefits and detriments of various means of providing more affordable housing, including fair-share mandates, rent control, and inclusionary zoning (including whether that leads to impermissible government takings of private property). It then briefly considers the merits and demerits of federal subsidy programs.

The Article briefly considers conceptual and practical problems in implementing the Supreme Court’s 2015 Inclusive Communities disparate impact holding and HUD’s 2015 regulations on “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing,” especially in light of the 2016 elections. Finally, it discusses how the concept of “affordable housing” conflates the separate issues of high housing prices and poverty and how housing prices might be reduced through removal of regulatory barriers to new construction.

Throughout, the Article stresses that advancing affordable housing goals has both explicit and implicit costs and that goals often are conflicting. To those ends, it employs economic, sociological, and legal perspectives.

Keywords: affordable housing, density, disparate impact, economics, eminent domain, fair housing, gentrification, land use, pricing, property, rent control, subsidies, takings clause, urban development, vouchers, wages, zoning

JEL Classification: K11, O18, R11, R31, J61

Suggested Citation

Eagle, Steven, 'Affordable Housing' as Metaphor (August 16, 2016). Fordham Urban Law Journal, Vol. 44, Forthcoming, George Mason Law & Economics Research Paper 16-34, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2824697

Steven Eagle (Contact Author)

George Mason University - Antonin Scalia Law School, Faculty

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