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Affordable Housing Crunch

Affordable Housing CrunchA hot housing market and soaring rents have increased the demand for more affordable housing, leaving many cities on the brink of a housing crisis.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [06.28.01] In cities around the country, lawmakers are dealing with an impending crisis -- climbing rents and already tight housing markets have left many cities with a severe shortage of affordable housing. From Los Angeles to Hartford, city officials have been crafting new plans to infuse more low-cost apartments into their cities. But many experts aren't sure the plans will solve the long-term problems.

In many cases, the problems began when cities started tearing down aging affordable housing units faster than they were building new ones.

According to Tufts' Rachel Bratt, chair of the university's urban and environmental policy department, single-room-occupancy hotels -- a large source of affordable housing just a decade ago -- have all but disappeared.

"In lieu of only new office buildings going up, why didn't we also put up replacements for that type of housing?" she told The Hartford Courant. "We never replaced those crummy single-room-occupancy hotels with a better [version]."

In the Massachusetts city of Worcester, officials are turning to incentives like tax breaks to increase the amount of affordable housing, hoping they will encourage more developers to set aside at least a quarter of the newly-built units as low-cost units.

But Bratt said those plans don't always work as well as they are designed.

"The whole thing might not work when you put pencil to paper," Bratt told The Worcester Telegram and Gazette. "Will the other rents be high enough to subsidize the affordable ones?"

The strategies considered by cities like Worcester -- including deferring taxes for developers or financing new construction with bonds that would be paid off with the revenue generated in the future -- may work in the short term, but could lead to new problems for cities to deal with in the future, Bratt said.

"It sounds promising for Worcester, for the moment at least," she told the Telegram and Gazette. "But 10 years later, taking stock of all the deals, could we be saying that we'd be getting tens of thousands of dollars in taxes more per year if we didn't have all these things tied up?"

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