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What Does Affordable Housing Really Mean In Phoenix?

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Phoenix’s Housing Department is out to change the way many people think about affordable housing. [Wednesday] the department presented its affordable housing initiative to a city subcommittee and some of the data was pretty eye opening. KJZZ’s Christina Estes joins me now to talk about the numbers and ideas. Christina, good morning.

CHRISTINA ESTES: Good morning, Steve.

GOLDSTEIN: The initiative is aimed at identifying affordable housing needs and recommending policies to increase housing options, but we want you to start by defining affordable housing — at least how the city is using it.

ESTES: Sure. The phrase 'affordable housing' is used by a lot of people in different ways. In this case, Phoenix says if more than 30% of your monthly income goes toward housing costs — that’s rent or a mortgage and utilities — then you are cost burdened, and you are not in affordable housing.

GOLDSTEIN: OK, so how many people are we talking about?

ESTES: Phoenix says 36% of total households are cost burdened and therefore not in affordable housing. When you break it down, it’s 25% of homeowners and 50% of renters.

GOLDSTEIN: Does that mean they’re all considered low income, then?

ESTES: No. Some certainly are, but some would be considered moderate income but their housing costs are more than 30% of their income.

GOLDSTEIN: When we’re describing incomes we’re referring to the area median household income. And that’s used by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, right?

ESTES: Right. Phoenix says 46% of households in the city are either low income, very low income or extremely low income. That's 46%. So for a household of four, that ranges from nothing up to $58,300 a year.

GOLDSTEIN: And where does that leave the rest of the population? That other 54 %?

ESTES: Well, nearly 20% fall into the low to moderate income range. That range is often used when people use the phrase 'workforce housing.'

GOLDSTEIN: Well Christina, what kind of income are we talking about for that 20%?

ESTES: Using the same example of a household with four people, it would range from about $59,000 a year to almost $87,500.

GOLDSTEIN: OK, so let's sup this up. We have 46% as low, very and extremely low income, and 19% as low to moderate. The remaining 35% then must be considered moderate to high.

ESTES: Yes. And for a household of four again, that would range from about $88,000 a year all the way up to millions.

GOLDSTEIN: For many years, and those of us who have lived here a long time, the history of Phoenix and surrounding cities was that they offered a lower cost of living than many places. So what happened?

ESTES: Well,tThere’s not a single, simple answer. We know wages for many people have been stagnant, and housing supply has not kept up with population growth.

GOLDSTEIN: So let’s talk about housing supply. During yesterday’s meeting, a representative from Phoenix’s Housing Department said the city needs more than 163,000 units to meet current demand. And that’s a mix of market rate housing and what’s often called 'affordable,' which in this case means subsidized, right?

ESTES: Yes. Sherree Bouchee is the city’s affordable housing advocate. While there’s a need for both market rate and subsidized housing, she says the need is especially great among low, very low and extremely low income households.

GOLDSTEIN: And she presented several policy initiatives to encourage more development of affordable housing. Did anything stand out to you?

ESTES: There were a lot of suggestions like zoning changes, landlord incentives and developing housing on city-owned land. One of the most interesting was a marketing and public education campaign. Here’s Sheree Bouchee:

SHEREE BOUCHEE: Almost 50% of our community would need some type of subsidized housi,ng — and that includes our seniors who are on fixed incomes, our teachers who are starting out, our professional staff starting out in the workforce, our service employees that are servers at restaurants. So these are people that are working in our community that need to subsidized rent and it’s not the people the people that people fear.

ESTES: She also used a phrase I expect to hear a lot in the coming months and even years.

GOLDSTEIN: OK, what is that?

ESTES: Gentle density. It’s a way to describe adding density that might meet less resistance from residents who don’t want more traffic, noise or frankly people in their neighborhoods. She used examples like townhomes, duplexes and triplexes.

GOLDSTEIN: And the initiative is going to go to the full council next, right?

ESTES: Yes, they should discuss it next month. So, that means you and I will probably meet back here and talk more about it.

GOLDSTEIN: KJZZ’s Christina Estes, thank you.

ESTES: You’re welcome.

For more information about the affordable housing crisis in Arizona, visit our HearArizona podcast series (Un)Affordable.

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Steve Goldstein was a host at KJZZ from 1997 to 2022.