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Warren focuses on affordable housing


While there’s been a surge of development of market-rate housing downtown, new housing for the city’s working class and low-wage earners hasn't kept pace, And city officials want to take a fresh look at how they evaluate proposals for affordable housing.

Every year, the city issues Requests for Proposals asking developers to build affordable housing, but “affordability” can have different meanings. That’s because the formula for calculating affordable housing is outdated and doesn’t reflect the city’s high concentration of poverty, Mayor Lovely Warren's chief of staff, Alex Yudelson, says.

Mayor Lovely Warren - FILE PHOTO
  • Mayor Lovely Warren
The City Charter currently defines low- and moderate-income residents as those earning up to 120 percent of the median income for the Rochester metropolitan area. That median is based on the incomes of people living in Monroe, Livingston, Ontario, Orleans, Wayne, and Yates counties. But that gives an inaccurate picture of the incomes of most people living in the city and what they can afford to pay for housing, Yudelson says.

At 120 percent of median income, city housing is considered affordable for a family of four with an income of $88,800. That’s more than many city families earn. And more than one-third of city families are spending more than 50 percent of their income on rent, even though the federal government guidelines recommend not exceeding 30 percent. This creates instability for the family and the city, says Yudelson. Families are evicted and have to find new housing, and sometimes children have to enroll in a different school.

Warren wants the city to consider affordable housing proposals based on the number of units designed for people living in one of four income categories: moderate income, low income, very low income, and extremely low income. A family of four with an extremely low income, for example, is one that earns only 30 percent of the median for the area: or $22,000 annually. They can’t afford more than $550 per month in rent.

On Tuesday night, City Council will vote on Warren's request to change the City Charter to include those categories and to revise the city's Request for Proposals language for affordable housing proposals.

The new definition of affordability largely applies to developers of affordable housing. The legislation will apply to future developments. It won’t to existing projects or those recently approved, such as Cobbs Hill Village. Most receive some state funding, but often lack all the money they need, Yudelson says. The city may offer $300,000 to close the gap, he says.

But the new definition will also apply to any new market-rate housing project that needs city loans, he says. The city already requires that any project receiving city financing devotes at least 10 percent of its units to affordable housing.

It’s unlikely that a developer would propose apartments for only extremely low-income individuals, because it’s not profitable. Redefining affordability will allow developers to create a mix of housing units that better reflects the needs of city residents and that will still permit developers to make a profit, Yudelson says.

Increasing the availability of affordable housing is critically important, says Councilmember Mitch Gruber, and the definition used by city officials, developers, and residents has been too loose. Affordable housing is extremely complex, and if there isn't a shared definition, “it’s impossible to be strategic,” he says.

“I want to see proposals that show a good diversity of income bands,” Gruber says. Affordable housing that has a mix of units at all levels of affordability would help break up the city’s concentration of poverty and economic segregation, he says.

There also has to be an emphasis on quality affordable housing, Gruber says, because some housing in the city that is considered affordable is in such poor condition that it’s not habitable, Gruber says.

This post has been updated to match the version that appears in the August 22, 2018 print edition.