Getting the scale right?

Three chapters in, I have thoroughly enjoyed the discussion of the system-level approach to regulation discussed in The Carbon Efficient City. After a year and a half of planning school, tales of well-intentioned policy that eventually works against those original intentions are only too familiar. I’m cautiously optimistic that more people will work to rethink our “givens” at the system scale, but frequently find myself overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge.

I’ve been interning since last summer to support a new committee in a nearby county which is trying to apply this sort of thinking to the challenge of affordable housing. It’s an exciting effort, not least because it was started entirely by public sector employees, not where conventional wisdom usually sees these kinds of things happening. Currently, the committee is working on formalizing its processes, and learning about housing opportunities and threats in each of the member jurisdiction. (That’s where I come in – I’m the head researcher at the moment.) The plan is that, once they understand each other fully, they will be able to use their combined scale to harness resources and political clout that would be otherwise out of reach to small communities, and find innovative solutions to housing challenges.

While I’m excited about this work, and optimistic for its success, the more I learn about the system of affordable housing, the more I worry about what needs to happen on a much larger scale to help more communities. First, and most fundamentally in my mind, quoting an internet celebrity of a few years ago: the rent is just too damn high. A significant portion of households cannot find appropriate housing that is affordable – these are not just the unemployed or disabled, these are also middle class families. The market isn’t able to provide a lot of housing in high demand, but most of the solutions look at subsidizing people’s rent – and how long can that go on? The demand for this subsidy is unmanageably high – in Snohomish County, for example, the current wait to receive a Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher is 6 years long. I worry that these systems may be actually working to keep rent at higher levels, but at the same time, it’s also not feasible to pull the funding so many rely on and wait for rents to hopefully adjust – so many factors affect rent levels, who could say that’s the thing that would do it?

The second big challenge for me is that housing never exists in a vacuum – transportation costs are directly affected by housing circumstances, and without considering the two in concert, the view is incomplete. The models for measuring this are messy, however. Further, many people need much more than rent money in order to pull themselves up and out of public assistance. In Federal programs, the government often simply doles out the money – Section 8 inspectors go inside units and can tell when people are in need of supportive services, but this goes beyond the scope of their work. While the cost of supportive housing (housing combined with services like mental health care) seems unbearable, when viewed at the proper scale it’s a no brainer.

And where to begin, anyway? Is the County big enough? Is the state? When does the scope get too big? At any rate, you have to start somewhere. And have to stay positive.

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