The Exclusionary Effect of “Mansionization”: Area Variances Undermine Efforts to Achieve Housing Affordability

The Exclusionary Effect of “Mansionization”: Area Variances Undermine Efforts to Achieve Housing Affordability

Home ownership near the workplace has become unattainable for many working Americans. Despite the overall increase in national home-ownership rates, according to the Urban Land Institute, “[a] rapid population rise and stagnating salaries for the middle class have made workforce housing a national problem.” “The Department of Housing and Urban Development [(HUD)] defines ‘affordable housing’ as a home which costs less than 30% of a family’s income . . .” In 1999, one out of every nine households in the nation spent more than half its income on housing. Since then, in Montgomery County, Maryland, which has been widely acknowledged for its efforts to address affordable housing concerns, “[the average sale price for a home has increased by 54 percent in the past five years, while the income level rose only 14 percent.” Although a resident of Montgomery County, Maryland, must earn a minimum of $48,700 annually to afford the monthly payment on a median-cost home, twenty percent of Montgomery County residents earn $35,000 or less. Since the mid-1990s, national house prices have increased by thirty percent, which is the biggest increase in house prices during a similar time period in history. As a result, “‘[f]irst-time home ownership opportunities are disappearing” and not just for the “familiar poor,” but for families who are making at least fifty percent of the national median income, who do not qualify for federal housing assistance.
The traditional American attitude toward land use and planning has been a primary culprit in the present affordable housing shortage. Historically, “we have always had large areas of undeveloped land. We have been able to use land until it is worn out, or no longer needed for its current use, and just move on.” However, the reality of our changed circumstances has forced people to pay more attention to sustainable growth strategies and local, as well as regional, community planning. The shortage of affordable housing for moderate-income Americans has produced a number of negative results: it impedes a healthy economy, threatens the family unit, strains local infrastructures, burdens the environment, and harms the quality of life. Communities “need a mixture of people in order to function, including manual labourers, police, nurses and teachers” and therefore need a mixture of housing to accommodate them.

Catherine Durkin

Catholic University Law Review

Winter 2006

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