Language Matters: Call It Low-Cost Housing

Housing affordability is an issue that’s been paid considerable attention over the previous two decades, but it doesn’t show signs of meaningful improvement. This even despite the almost $50 billion HUD spends in taxpayer dollars annually on solving the affordability crisis and related concerns.

So what gives? One likely culprit is the language we use to describe the problem.

Take the word “affordable.” Affordable housing – used in a public policy context – is a misnomer of sorts: affordability implies the ability to pay for something given your budget. But budgets vary considerably between households, and so the definition of affordability varies considerably, too.

There are only two – improbable – ways that any given housing could be affordable to the aggregate U.S. population. One option is that everyone’s incomes are identical. Another option is that housing is altogether free.

Although HUD makes attempts at each via its current policy mélange, neither is a practicable objective in a free society. And aside from these objectives being met, objectively affordable housing cannot exist.

Instead, it is useful to reframe the debate as a need for low-cost housing. Rather than lowering the bar, low-cost housing offers a higher ideal: even when housing is affordable it isn’t necessarily low-cost, for example. But, conversely, when housing is low-cost enough it is nearly always affordable.

Essentially, re-labeling reminds us to solve the real problem by obliging us to ask “how do we make housing cost less?”

Fortunately, low-cost housing can be realized in myriad ways. Many of these market solutions are currently underemphasized by politicians and housing policy specialists. Examples include terminating protectionist housing policies, like those surrounding mortgage interest tax deductions, curbing future reactionary meddling in mortgage underwriting standards, and of course, repealing land use and zoning laws, which are inimical to low-cost housing.

In this way, we diagnose the problem and treat it directly, and avoid a hopeless fixation on high-cost housing’s irresolvable bi-products.