The recently released 2018 Citywide Housing Market Study starts with “Key Findings,” thus setting the stage to study how to improve the ability of poor renters to find a decent place to live, and the ability of upwardly mobile residents to be able to buy a house. Those findings are:
- Rochester is a soft market within a soft regional market.
- There are three distinct patterns of demand (higher, moderate and lower) in Rochester—each with distinct problems and opportunities to address.
- Very low incomes—not high housing costs—are at the root of affordability challenges in Rochester and cannot be solved by housing policy.
- Virtually all housing development in Rochester requires subsidy either to induce or assist.
- Growing Rochester’s limited share of regional housing demand is necessary to strengthen the city’s markets and financial capacity.
This report by czb LLC of Alexandria, Va.—commissioned by the city of Rochester as a technical study to help shape development of the city’s new Rochester 2034 comprehensive plan—divides the city into neighborhood zones reflecting the present-day reality: declining ability of owners and tenants to pay for affordable housing. It then estimates the public funds that would be required to stabilize houses, blocks, and neighborhoods in each zone, enabling residents, potential buyers and renters, by creating new demand, to improve values so that house, block or neighborhood could stabilize.
The report includes dollar estimates required for those public investments, which then become projections of what it will take to improve the market for housing in each affordability category and neighborhood. That potential stabilization is projected to result in residents and landlords becoming motivated to maintain and improve their properties, and enabling renters to become homeowners.
Here are some key statistics Rochester’s poorest families that I extracted from various charts:
- Approximately 20 percent, or 16,455, of Rochester households are living in poverty with median household income of $20,647.
- 75 percent of those households spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing.
- 59.3 percent of those households are families.
- Of those families, 74.2 percent have a single parent and 80 percent are black or Hispanic.
- 43 percent of those households have no wage or salary income.
Those statistics characterize the poorest segment of the city population. Sure, there are healthy housing markets in Rochester, all located downtown or in the southeast quadrant of the city. Other south, northwest and northeast neighborhoods fall somewhere in between. Yet does anyone really believe the perception of Rochester as a place not to raise a family and educate their children will markedly change until we deal with the poorest cohort, and the blighting effect that poverty has on neighborhoods throughout the city? Let’s look more closely at this bottom cohort.
Target segment of the housing market
From the various charts for people living in the group of neighborhoods falling in this most challenged category, I estimate there are approximately 4,000 to 5000 single-parent minority families paying 74 percent or more of their income on housing. The study calculates that the maximum affordable shelter costs (rent plus utilities) for that family is $516 a month. What strategies does the housing study consider that could help those families find decent, affordable housing, or help landlords in those neighborhoods provide affordable housing at that level? (The study does not discuss ways to increase the income of poor people, as that is beyond the scope of a housing study. Yet, as stated above, for Rochester lack of income is the major factor at the root of failing neighborhoods.)
The thesis of this housing study is that if the city can help households stabilize their living situation, then that neighborhood becomes more desirable and home ownership will become more attainable as mortgage lenders may again be willing to lend in that neighborhood. Landlords will be more confident and will make repairs, reducing the amount of abandonment and need for demolition. Thus, the house, the block, and perhaps the neighborhood, will stabilize. So, let’s see what possible housing market interventions are identified:
- Property tax exemptions for homeowners or seniors,
- Housing Choice Vouchers, and Housing Authority apartments,
- Units in properties receiving tax exemptions for income-eligible occupants; and
- Census block groups with focused investment strategies.
That’s all, folks! I hate to have to report that nothing else is proposed. I looked, in vain, for mention of:
- City housing quality inspection services, which might have included inducements and penalties.
- Adequacy of city sanitation and neighborhood “clean sweep” programs.
- Infrastructure issues such as street trees, broken sidewalks and curbs, neglected paving, treelawns without grass.
- The city’s ability to make abandoned houses available to willing occupants (as Utica does for immigrant families).
- Lack of security deposit as a key impediment to finding an affordable apartment.
- Crisis-driven forced mobility, i.e., high rate of evictions in poorest neighborhoods.
- City care of vacant lots, and putting them to use as community gardens, etc.
- Adequacy and proximity of parks, playgrounds, neighborhood service centers.
- Dollars needed to stabilize units on brink of abandonment.
- Given the documented last-place position for Rochester public schools, what would be the effect of instituting community schools (complete services within walking distance)?
- What improved factors of housing stability might it be reasonable to expect when results of the ongoing Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative target area intervention finds city-wide funding?
If we wish to look at the whole spectrum of household incomes and neighborhoods (rather than just the focus I selected), there is a chart of the dollar amounts that have been estimated by the consultant to be required to stabilize a house, a block, or a neighborhood in each category. Because the cost of interventions will far outstrip the resources available through the agencies and institutions capable of making funds available, it is important to evaluate the 2020-21 and subsequent city budgets’ ability to include the investments needed to stabilize and improve the housing stock and neighborhoods. There is none.
As there were no specifics of the interventions required, city staff will have to generate that list to be able to relate this study to the budget process, or relate the housing market objectives to ongoing performance review of various city services. Because the housing study failed to discuss what city interventions might be possible given budget constraints, it’s likely targets won’t be set and the new comprehensive plan will gather dust on the shelf, as have its predecessors. I don’t see why another $100,000 for a consultant will be necessary to provide the additional data. I know capable city staff who I believe would be eager to make this contribution.
Richard Rosen is an architect and planner with Mark IV Enterprises.