Over decades, luxury housing can become affordable housing

Several examples suggest one source of affordable housing today is luxury housing built decades ago:

One of these complexes was the Timberlee in suburban Raleigh Hills, a close-in suburban neighborhood. According to The Oregonian, the Timberlee on SW 38th Place was one of the most prosperous of the 13 apartment complexes it examined in its story, with 97 percent of its 214 units rented.

The Timberlee Apartments are still around today. While none of the units are currently for rent, according to Apartments.com, rents in the area run from about $1,000 for studios and one-bedroom units to $1,300 and more for two-bedroom and larger apartments. By today’s standards, the Timberlee seems modest, and a bit dated, rather than luxurious…

New housing is almost always built for and sold to the high end of the marketplace. It was that way 100 years ago and 50 years ago. But as it ages, housing depreciates and moves down market. The luxury apartments of two or three decades ago have lost most of their luster, and command relatively lower rents. And the truth is, that’s how we’ve always generated more affordable housing, through the process that economists call “filtering.” And the new self-styled “luxury” apartments we’re building today will be the affordable housing of 2040 and 2050 and later.

What causes affordability problems to arise is when we stop building new housing, or build it too slowly to cause aging housing to filter down-market. When new high-priced housing doesn’t get built, demand doesn’t disappear, instead, those higher-income households bid up the price of the existing housing stock, keeping it from becoming more affordable. Which is why otherwise prosaic 1,500-foot ranch houses in Santa Monica sell for a couple of million bucks, while physically similar 1950’s era homes in the rest of the country are either now highly affordable—or candidates for demolition.

If this is one of the larger sources for affordable housing, then the lesson seems to be that we just need to construct lots of housing all the time. Not all of the expensive housing will filter down to cheaper prices but some will as it ages and the neighborhood or community conditions change.

In the bigger picture, this also suggests there is not an easy immediate fix to affordable housing. Once it is identified as a problem in a community or region, it may be too late. Instead, the housing built today – and even housing proposed right now often takes a while to go through the full planning, approval, and construction process – could affect conditions decades later.

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