We need a better phrase than “market rate affordable housing”

Last week the Alliance for Housing Solutions held a forum in Arlington, VA to discuss the city’s and region’s housing situation in the 50 years since the Fair Housing Act was passed. One problem held up in particular was the lack of “market rate affordable housing”, a phrase that makes no God-damned sense whatsoever. Consider this pop-out definition from a paper prepared by Arlington:

Market-Rate Affordable Housing, or MARKs, are apartments that have rents that are affordable to low- and moderate-income households by virtue of the age, location, condition and/or amenities of the property. These properties do not have a limit on income for tenants and thereby serve low- and moderate-income households as well as households with higher incomes. The rent is not regulated by the County or any other public agency.

If rents are not set, and for the most part they aren’t, then the rate is market. If the apartment is rented, the rate is affordable. It’s “affordable” because people are scared to articulate the “for whom” that the word “affordable” has to contain to have any useful meaning.

Between living in Arlington and working in Herndon, I have a kind of front row seat to the process of both towns becoming like each other, and people’s attempts to stop that process.

When I first moved to the DC area, 20 years ago, I had to live in Columbia Heights because I couldn’t afford to live in Arlington (let that sink in, Millennials). Columbia Road was full of divey immigrant restaurants, Columbia Pike was car dealerships, “nice” restaurants, and even had an avian veterinarian, and Herndon was a bedroom community of white civil servants (though already AOL’s presence was starting to diversify it). By 10 years ago, Columbia Heights was too expensive for me to live in, the immigrant restaurants were being pushed from the Road to the Pike, and the avian veterinarian had moved out to Great Falls. Now the whole region is starting to smudge: a man running for the Herndon city council was born in Punjab, and Arlington is starting to re-gentrify as lower-tier hipsters get priced out of the city proper.

Ten years ago, in Herndon, it was still politically tolerated for white exurbanites to complain about “Mexicans” (they were almost certainly not Mexican) standing around in front of the 7-11. That nativist contingent have mostly donned their MAGA caps and moved out to Loudoun County (where, in the nature of things, the “Mexicans” are steadily following them), and the chief complaint now is that Herndon is being built more densely, with a Metro stop coming soon and a bunch of row houses “that don’t even have side yards!”.

The complaints of white Herndonites are easy enough to mock but I think it’s important to admit that they are largely the other side of the same coin that community activists in already-dense places are using in the name of protecting neighborhood character: the ultimately doomed idea that we have control over the demographics of the area we live in, or some kind of right to “freeze” those demographics in a configuration we like.

The question everybody has buried in their urban policy and nobody (except the MAGA types) wants to actually ask outloud is: “who deserves to live in this town?” DC apartments are expensive because there are fewer of them than there are people who want to live in the city, and the city has made sure that there will remain fewer of them for the near to medium term because it’s basically impossible to build large high-rise units (the elevator is the most effective form of mass transit ever invented, remember).

The problem with gentrification, really, isn’t rising rents, and simply keeping rents low won’t solve the problem (a landlord would still generally rather rent to me than to a person of color, even at the same dollar value). The way to solve the problem is to get the people who live in a gentrifying neighborhood enough money to continue to live there if they wish, or move somewhere else if they would prefer.