You could probably fit every unit of affordable housing being built in Philadelphia today inside one of the fancy glass skyscrapers going up in University City, and still have a couple of floors left over. That’s not because the new towers are so immense, but because the city produces so little subsidized housing for the poor and working class.
It wasn’t always that way. From the 1950s through the Clinton years, the federal government financed thousands of units of affordable housing. Though the results weren’t always well-designed, the programs did at least ensure the poor had places to live. But in the last decade, federal money dried up and cities were left to their own devices. It’s no accident that wage stagnation has become a hot issue as low-cost housing has become harder to find.
So, as with many urban improvements these days, cities have begun to look to the private sector to pick up the slack. The strategy is called “inclusionary housing,” and it involves trading zoning bonuses for apartments.
Developers get to put up taller, denser towers. Cities get a bunch of units in the new buildings that can be rented at below-market rates. Low-wage workers get fabulous apartments with skyline views.