Think affordability and diversity will harm your town’s bottom line? Think again. - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Think affordability and diversity will harm your town’s bottom line? Think again.

Eric Burka Studios

The Capital Quarter development in Washington, D.C. is a mix of public housing rental, workforce homeownership and market rate homeownership.

Omitting the most incendiary comments (of which there were many), here is a sampling of reaction to the recent Chicago Tribune article, “Towns snub mandate on affordable housing,” which reported that 40 of 68 Illinois municipalities have not submitted a plan requested by the state to address their lack of affordable housing:

Enough government intrusion. - trampletheweak

Let the free market forces determine who lives where…Why is it the city"s (sic) responsibility to provide or designate affordable housing? The free market determines that. – mlljj63

We pay a lot of money to live where we do... Anyone who wants to live in this neighborhood can certainly do so if they can afford it. That they can't isn't anyone's [bleep] problem but theirs. - notforus

It was heartening to read one commentator’s viewpoint that the North Shore’s populace is compelled by its predominant religions—Christianity and Judaism—to be Good Samaritans who “welcome all, especially the poor. However, when we create laws (e.g., zoning rules) that prevent low-income families from moving into our communities, we are working against our own religious beliefs.”

I would argue that we also work against our own economic self-interest. It’s money, not morality, at the crux of most arguments against affordable housing, so let’s look at the economic obstacles to and arguments for inclusive communities.

For those who argue that the free market should determine where people can afford to live—well, it already has, and the results are economically sobering. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that when places like Silicon Valley enact protectionist housing policies (through, for instance, zoning that restricts new development to large-lot, expensive single-family homes) rather than welcoming higher levels of growth, it holds back the entire nation's Gross Domestic Product growth by nearly 14 percent.

A 2013 Urban Studies report found that when poverty and segregation rates are high in metropolitan areas, these regions’ economies perform worse than less segregated regions. This is because, as outlined in this CityLab article:

“Metropolitan economies rely on labor of all kinds, often side-by-side, with high-end architects alongside plumbers, office towers near cab stands, and biotech inventors with security guards. But when low-wage workers pay an out-sized chunk of their paycheck just getting to work, or when suburban office parks locate beyond the reach of public transit, those inefficient patterns start to affect whole regional economies.”

University of North Carolina professor Harrison Campbell describes it as a kind of market failure in which “what seems to be good for the individual turns out not to be good for society as a whole.” And when a region’s economy suffers, so too does every individual trying to make a living there.

Further, there is evidence that a community’s diversity can benefit its bottom line. In west suburban Oak Park, being an inclusive community has become a competitive advantage. The town—which is 32 percent non-white, 10 percent foreign-born and nearly 9 percent low-income with deliberate community-wide integration—has seen its home values rise with increased diversity.

To be clear, several towns that officially fall below the state’s mark of 10 percent affordable housing are working proactively to increase their affordability. North suburban Lake Forest and Highland Park, for instance, each have established an inclusionary housing ordinance and a land trust. In both towns, priority for their affordable units goes to current residents who are housing cost burdened (paying more than one-third of their income toward housing) and people who work in the area but haven’t been able to afford to live there.

Notably, Lake Forest and Highland Park continue to thrive: Median incomes are on the rise, the percentage of students who meet or exceed standards on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) are double digits ahead of the state average (in some cases as high as 31 percent more), and Highland Park was recently rated the #2 best place to live in Illinois.

Policies that enable people of varying incomes to live in the same community position the Chicago region for a stronger economy that gives individuals of all incomes better opportunities. That’s progress worthy of our collective investment.

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