Opinion: Don’t fear affordable housing

(Photo by Will Dendis)

(Photo by Will Dendis)

Fear appears to be the main driver in getting voter attention these days. Fear of affordable housing. Fear of a neighborhood changing. Fear of change. Instead of facing the fear and dealing with it, a few people want to become victims and blame the world for changing.

Let’s look at affordable housing. “Affordable” does not mean Section 8 or HUD (Housing Urban Development) housing. It means that 30 percent of your income is used to pay for housing. According to the 2010 U.S. Census Report, the median income in Saugerties is over $60,000. This means that the “median” person in Saugerties could afford $18,000 a year on rent or a mortgage, or about $1,500 per month. If my math is correct, that would mean the “median” person could afford a home ranging from around $225,000 to $275,000, depending on interest rates. That is what “affordable” housing looks like in Saugerties.

The town of Saugerties will be holding additional public meetings for the public to comment on a change to our zoning law. The current law states that if a builder wants to build ten or more units, 20 percent of them need to be “affordable” housing. The reasons stated for the change is that developers don’t like it and won’t develop housing projects greater than nine units because of it. We’re being told that the “affordable” houses would bring down the value of the more expensive houses. I always thought it worked the other way – you wanted to own the least expensive house in a neighborhood because it brings up the value of your house. We’re also being told that new homes can’t be built for $225,000 to $275,000 – new construction costs way more than that. I don’t know if this is true or not, but it’s what we’re being told. If the current people in Saugerties want to buy a home, there’s plenty of “affordable” old housing stock and we don’t need any more.

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Is the fear of “affordable” housing based on a fear of neighborhoods changing? It was mentioned at the Town Board meeting that new developments could be million dollar-plus houses in gated communities. Do we only feel comfortable living with neighbors who are in our own economic class? Isn’t this economic segregation? Is this the type of community and town we want to be?

Another view of “affordable” housing comes from the April 22, 2014 Washington Post. In an article titled, “What you’d need to make in every county in America to afford a decent one-bedroom,” it states that in Ulster County, you’d need to earn $15.75 per hour and work a 40-hour work week to afford a decent one-bedroom apartment. If 30 percent of what you earn is used for rent, then your rent would be about $819 a month. For a decent two-bedroom you’d need to earn $24.87 per hour, but you’d also need to work more hours. You’d need to earn way above the minimum wage to live in a decent apartment.

Again, locally we face the fear of “affordable” apartment development. According to the “National Housing Preservation Database,” two of our current “affordable” apartment buildings are for seniors: Saugerties Senior Citizens Housing and The Mill. The Birches is also listed as affordable. The other two listed are ARC Apartments and 13 Village Dr. in Barclay Heights. This represents a total of 269 housing units, of which 152 are for seniors. To me, it doesn’t seem like a lot of housing for a town with a population of around 20,000.

So again, why are we afraid of affordable housing? Is it masking a greater fear, like the decline of the middle class and the increasing income disparity in our region and country? Housing is expensive, wages are stagnant and the cost of living is rising. National Public Radio ran a series on their show “Marketplace” called, “The Secret Life of a Food Stamp.” One out of seven Americans is now on food stamps. Most of the recipients are working at minimum wage service jobs, like those at Walmart. In fact, Walmart is the largest employer in Ohio and 15 percent of its workers there are on food stamps. Walmart is the largest recipient of food stamp dollars from the Federal Government—$13 billion in revenue in one year, or about four percent of Walmart’s total sales in the U.S. We taxpayers are subsidizing Walmart’s low employee wages.

Should we be angry? Yes, but not at local government and not at affordable housing. We should all be writing to our congressman to insist on a higher minimum wage so we can afford decent housing. We should also be insisting that Walmart and other service providers pay their employees a decent wage so that we, the taxpayers, aren’t subsidizing their employees and their profits. It’s been proven that “trickle-down” economics doesn’t work. Rich people can only buy so many cars, pillows and appliances. It’s the consumers/customers like you and me that grow the economy. The rich are not “job creators,” consumers are. Consumers need to earn enough money to be able to buy things for the economy to grow.

We should also be writing to get food stamp benefits extended. The people who need the benefits are not slackers, they are the working poor in this country and they will spend the money they receive, which helps grow the economy.

Somehow, we’ve taken to blaming the poor for their condition instead of looking at the conditions that created the lack of jobs. Sure, some people don’t want to work and are looking to live on the dole. But they are in the minority of people who are in need. Globalization, harmful trade agreements, corporate greed and the demise of unions are what decimated the middle class. We need to channel our anger to fight these things in order to close the income gap.

If we don’t voice our concerns to our elected officials and vote, we’re part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Beth Murphy’s column runs the first week of the month