Myths & Facts

Myths—important sources of meaning in all societies—provide shared rationales for community members to behave in common ways; they have a strong moral component, with clear lines between right and wrong. Although myths are sometimes positive, they can also serve as shields for deeper and uglier motivations: racism, fear of outsiders, greed.

When people argue against affordable housing, they often use myths to convince decision-makers that the residents don’t belong there. Traffic will be too heavy and schools will grow overcrowded. The buildings will clash with existing neighborhoods. The people won’t fit in. Maybe they'll even be criminals.

Opponents often truly believe these myths. But it's essential to counter these myths with facts. We desperately need new affordable housing to reverse recent increases in overcrowding and overpayment. We also need housing to support economic recovery; to accommodate new workers and their families; and to economize on infrastructure costs, while preserving open space and cutting down on the distance between new homes and new jobs.

Fortunately, the facts of recent experiences with affordable housing often contradict the myths. We can now begin to rely on this recent experience to reassure concerned residents that the myths don't have to come true.

Myth 1: Affordable housing will cause too much traffic.

Fact: People who live in affordable housing own fewer cars and drive less. Two-thirds of renters and over three-fourths of the households living below the poverty line own no vehicles or only one, car, compared to 54 percent of all households and 44 percent of homeowner households. With lower car ownership rates come fewer trips, and fewer single-occupant auto commutes, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission found in the 1990s that low-income households make an average of 3.6 trips per day, compared to 6.8 trips per day for medium- and 9.9 per day for high-income households.

Affordable housing can encourage retail development and ease walking & transit use. The affordable housing recipient is a large contributor to retail sales and. circulating money back into the community. Mixing housing with commercial development is ever more crucial for traffic control, since non-work trips constitute the largest number of trips. In 1990, over three-fourths of trips were non-work trips. With affordable housing, malls, and stores serving neighborhood residents move in, allowing residents to walk to malls or stores to buy groceries or to the dry cleaner instead of driving there. Transit connections also become more common when neighborhood density increases, because transit is only cost-effective at densities above eight or 10 units per acre.

Myth 2: Affordable housing and low income residents drain the city of its resources.

Fact: People motivated by these concerns may just need to "meet" the residents of high-density and affordable housing. Residents often have been members of the community for a long time, and will continue to make contributions to their neighborhoods.

Myth 3: People who live in affordable housing won't fit into my neighborhood.

Fact: People who need affordable housing already live and work in your community. According to government definitions of affordable housing, families should devote no more than 30% of their income to rent or mortgage payments and utilities. "Affordable housing" often simply means housing whose residents don't pay too large a share of their income on rent or a mortgage.

Families earning less than four-fifths (80%) of the area's median income are officially "lower income" households; families earning less than half of the median are known as "very low income" households. For example, a starting elementary or high-school teacher in (Black Hawk County) with a gross monthly income of around $2,000, can afford to pay $600 a month in rent-which qualifies as low-income if the teacher lives alone; if the salary must support a spouse and a child, the family would be a very low income household. A starting Social Worker in Black Hawk County, with income barely higher than $20,000 a year, would also qualify for affordable housing. Many other professionals that make barely higher than $20,000 also qualify for low-income housing.

Myth 4: Residents of affordable housing move too often to be stable community members.

Fact: Housing type is much less important in determining mobility than tenure. Renters move more often than owners do, whether they live in single- or multi-family housing. Once tenure is accounted for, the difference between the housing types is almost meaningless, especially for renters.

Myth 5: Affordable housing reduces property values.

Fact: No study has ever shown that affordable housing developments reduce property values.

Many of your neighbors live in low-income housing. You can’t look at a neighbor and know that they are low income. There are many Public/Section 8 Scattered Site homes that are low income, these properties are usually owned by the cities' Housing Authorities and are kept in as good or better condition than most of the homes that are owner occupied.

Myth 6: High-density and affordable housing undermine community character.

Fact: Affordable housing can always be designed to fit into existing communities. The deceiving measurement of low income housing at between 20 and 50 units per acre can be designed to fit in most communities. The best way to convince people of this is to show them how well new low-income housing can fit into their neighborhoods.

Affordable housing differs little or not at all from any other development. When Habitat for Humanity builds its self-help project, local developers and subcontractors contribute materials identical to those used in nearby market-rate homes. Thanks to sensitive work by experienced architects, the new homes fit in perfectly. These developments are proof that "affordable housing" doesn't mean high-rise slums.

When most people hear "affordable housing," they imagine "high-rise housing." But in most cities, the market won't even support high-rise housing anymore. More often than not, "high-density" development now means two- or three-story or side-by-side wood frame garden town homes or apartments that frequently are similar in scale to large-home luxury housing.

Myth 7: Affordable housing increase crime.

Fact: Affordable housing does not cause crime. For many years social scientists have asked whether high affordable housing causes crime. Not one study has shown any relationship between population or housing density and violent crime rates; once residents' incomes are taken into account, the effect of density on non-violent crime decreases to non-significance.

Scattering affordable housing helps check crime. In areas comprised mostly of low-income housing - particularly those areas lacking jobs, responsive police, and community services - crime can be higher. Local governments can help blunt the effect of such concentrations of low-income housing in any one place by accommodating their share of the state's need for affordable housing, by encouraging the development of affordable houses in scattered locations, and by approving mixed-income residential developments.

Management and design are key. Local governments can also help protect the entire community - including affordable housing residents themselves-by attending to details at the project level. Most important is effective professional management on site, with strong tenant screening and good security systems. Design, too can play an important role in protecting residents and neighbors of affordable housing, especially by ensuring visibility. Developments should also contain a mix of unit types to accommodate different kinds of households. When residents have different occupations and family types, there will probably also be someone home in the development almost all the time.

This is the 21st century there is a shortage of affordable housing. We must stop believing the pervasive myth: that we can do nothing to create affordable housing.

Many cities, including suburbs, have stopped believing that they lack the creativity, resources, and will to house all those who need shelter. And as a result, they have established that, in fact, communities can become more open, more accepting, and better places for old timers, new immigrants, or their own children.