Photo: Eastside Bond on the East Busway

Twitter: @downstream_city

Continued from Part Five…


New Urban Renewal

The name is Bond, Eastside Bond.

ICYMI: Eastside Bond – where “an apartment is only as good as its neighborhood” – is now leasing, and you can read about it here. 

At the recent City Council hearing for the Housing Opportunity Fund, several speakers noted that a 360-unit residential development – on the East Busway – should have turned out differently.  Because the project used public subsidies, it should have been obligated to provide some affordable units for those who rely on public transit because they don’t have cars.  It didn’t work out that way.

Image is from Bond’s leasing page

The dismantling of large-scale subsidized housing seen in Part Five marked the end of an era during which our nation attempted to provide decent housing for huge numbers of low-income people within a short period of time, leaving behind a dubious legacy.  Since then, affordable housing construction has become more humane and sustainable, but also decentralized and diluted, through mixed-income and scattered-site strategies, and has plodded along without great urgency.  But now communities across the nation are again grappling with the need to affordably house great numbers of people, quickly.

The 1960s urban renewal chapter of East Liberty’s history obliterated more than a million square feet of commercial and residential real estate (not to mention infrastructure), and rebuilt it all in less than ten years. A former housing developer, then active in East Liberty, reminded me that that decade required, in today’s dollars, something in the billions.  The changes we’re observing in the same neighborhood today don’t result from billions of dollars or anything close to it, and have taken about three times as long (so far).  The principal actors are not the federal government, but “public-private partnerships” that include local government agencies, non-profits, foundations, for-profit developers, and so on.

East Liberty’s highly visible and thoroughly documented transformation provides the best insights into what to do and what not to do elsewhere.  This series has described the nature of Pittsburgh’s affordable housing crises, which brings us to what can be done about it.  Federal American Properties and the East Liberty neighborhood are contributors to, but not the causes of, Pittsburgh’s housing crises.  East Liberty also holds part of the solution, and from it we can take away some valuable lessons about how to build the future supply of affordable housing we need.  What, then, do we need?

Click images below for previous parts of this series.

Why can’t you charge less?

Progress in the affordable housing battle throughout the region should not be measured only by numbers of units, but who it serves.  A region’s housing market is a reflection of many things – including jobs, crime, schools and public policy – and the supply of, and demand for, affordable housing is no different.  Synthesizing all of those things is beyond my focus (not to mention my abilities), but certain observations are easy to make.

“Affordable housing is more complex than simply creating market-rate housing and charging less for it.”

That East Liberty is a dramatically different place today than it was a decade ago doesn’t require much insight.  By any social, economic or physical indicator, the neighborhood was ailing, and change was inevitable.  Two community plans, forged in 1999 and 2010, envisioned some of the change we see today, and spoke to increasing economic and social diversity while remaining inclusive.  But ‘inclusive’ is a slippery term that, unless clearly defined, is impossible to measure afterwards.

East Liberty housing may or may not have a percentage of affordable housing units that is consistent with its history and appropriate for its current population – I don’t know.  What is evident, though, is that East Liberty once accommodated great numbers of extremely poor households.  Now it does not, and very likely will not.

The city as a whole, meanwhile, is clearly running a serious deficit in the affordable housing supply.  The efforts currently being forged have the potential to reduce that deficit, but, like East Liberty, have a rather sparse toolbox with which to address the most impoverished individuals.  Many of the speakers at the April 2016 City Council meeting on affordable housing cited a lack of political will as a primary culprit.  While definitely a contributing factor, it’s not apparent how, even with an abundance of political determination, we make a major impact with the tools in hand to affect change for the poorest amongst us.

Earlier this year, a community meeting was held in Lawrenceville to review the plans for Arsenal Terminal, a proposed $150 million riverfront development with a whopping 625 units. Micro apartments will command a thousand dollars per month, while the premier units will bring in three times as much.  A community member asked, “No one I know can afford this – why do you have to make them so expensive?”

New pedestrian bridge reconnecting East Liberty to Shadyside

A representative from the developer team, Milhaus Ventures, talked about construction costs, the market, amenities and so on, and ultimately said (paraphrasing), “That’s just what they cost.”  The woman in the audience pleaded patiently: with so many units, can’t some of them be made more affordable?  The back and forth ended when the developer said (again paraphrasing), “We are market-rate housing developers, but we’ll look into finding a partner that knows how to do affordable housing.”  The woman sat down, clearly baffled.

The problem is a common one.  The woman didn’t understand, and the man didn’t explain, that affordable housing is far more complex than simply creating market-rate housing and charging less for it; a common misconception.  Making housing affordable, by way of new construction or major rehabilitation, must be the objective from the outset, and it’s highly specialized.  The ways in which property destined to be affordable is acquired, held, financed, developed, and rented or sold barely resembles its market-rate counterparts. The developer was indicating that his company simply doesn’t know how to do affordable housing, which can be said of most housing developers.

I am aware that if I were sitting beside some of you right now, I’d be losing consciousness because of the beer bottle you just smashed over my head.  Fortunately you’re not, but I’ll just get this out of the way.  Do some developers of both market-rate and affordable housing achieve high profit margins?  Yes.  Could they lower their rents once their debts are under control and the cash is flowing?  Yes.  How often does that happen?  Never, pretty much.  Do they take enormous financial risks, such that they feel justified to maximize profits for all of eternity?  I can’t speak to developers’ feelings (probably yes).  Should established developments that turn a healthy profit set aside certain units for people with low incomes as a meaningful contribution towards ameliorating the hardships of many of our fellow citizens?  No more questions.

Beyond the busway is Eastside Bond. The “Walnut” unit is currently renting for $4,809/mo. It will increase to $5,872/mo by year’s end, so don’t wait!

Photo: Peri Vrabel

“Inclusionary zoning is to housing policy what the tractor pull is to the county fair.”

None of that matters when financing a new project, however.  The risks are high, and investors and lenders need to see how a project will cash-flow from the outset.  Market-rate developers who don’t know how to subsidize affordable housing can’t sway lenders with the social capital of good intentions.

Standard residential construction, be it one unit or many, is simply too expensive to rent or sell to individuals below the area median income at anything other than a financial loss, regardless of the neighborhood it’s in.  Affordable housing requires subsidy, either for its construction, operation, or both.  How much subsidy goes into it, where it comes from, and how long it lasts are determining factors in the production of affordable housing and, more importantly, who it serves.

For the foreseeable future, the means by which our city can increase the supply of affordable housing are limited.  Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) remain as the primary path for new construction and/or rehabilitation.  The City’s Housing Authority can add to its current inventory of project-based Section 8 housing.  The proposed Affordable Housing Trust Fund (AHTF) can incentivize housing production or rehabilitation.  More landlords can be incentivized to accept Section 8 housing vouchers.  And lastly, there’s inclusionary zoning which, to many, is what the tractor pull is to the county fair.

All of these mechanisms can meaningfully increase the availability of affordable housing.  However, these strategies will primarily impact those defined as “low-income” or “very low-income,” but will have negligible benefits for the population defined as “extremely low-income” (30% Area Median Income or below.)  And while counting units shouldn’t be the primary measurement of success, it does have some utility.  Our current shortage, estimated at twenty thousand units, is a big number, and it’s not at all clear as to how many units the combined strategies above can provide in the years to come.

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Low-income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC)

If someone approached you on the street with a special offer that sounded vaguely like LIHTC, you’d tell him to get lost.  They have the feel of prize booths along the midway of a traveling carnival.  (Carnies call them slum-joints, by the way.  The ‘slum’ is the prize and ‘alibis’ are are the tricks that ultimately take your money.  Don’t ask why I know any of that.)  But for developers, LIHTC is the cornerstone for more than 90% of affordable housing built nationwide.  (If you’re not especially interested in how they work, skip the next paragraph or four.)

LIHTC start at the federal level and make their way through state agencies to local developers. For the finer points of LIHTC, you’d be wise to ask someone other than me to explain them (like this guy).  The basic function is this: developers that are awarded tax credits sell them to investors who use them to reduce their annual tax bills dollar-for-dollar for a period of ten years.  The developer uses the buyer’s investment towards the construction of affordable housing that has to remain affordable for thirty years.  Mostly a good deal all around.

It’s understandable to think that thirty years is a sufficiently long time to hold units affordable, at which time they could be reevaluated alongside a particular area’s housing needs, with an option to renew.  But in reality (and regardless of one’s opinion about subsidized housing in general), there is no historical evidence that suggests the need for affordable housing will be any less in the future (but a lot that suggests the opposite.)  For that reason, 30-year affordability is a short-term option, and often the only option.  Elly Fisher, assistant director for the Oakland Planning and Development Corporation, noted in a recent P-G article that, “There is no other means to do affordable housing but the tax credits, and it’s highly competitive.”

There are two kinds of LIHTC, commonly known as “9%” and “4%”, which are more like cousins than siblings.  9% LIHTC is the more desirable and competitive of the two (more popular and better at sports), and subsidizes 70% of the total development costs for an affordable housing project.  4% LIHTC is less desirable but more readily available (reads a lot and has a perpetually runny nose), and subsidizes 30% of development costs.  In other words, a one million dollar development would ultimately receive $700,000 in subsidy with the 9%, but only $300,000 with the 4%.  Because new construction is more expensive than rehab, it typically needs the 9%, and the 4% is typically used towards rehab projects.

“How how fast are we losing the affordable housing we have?”

Penn Mathilda Apartments was funded through 9% low-income tax credits.

LIHTC projects must meet a test:  either 20% of the units have to serve people at 50% AMI, or 40% of the units serve people at 60%.  The remaining units (80% or 60%, respectively) can be priced at whatever the market will bear.  LIHTC incentivizes applicants to exceed the requirements by awarding additional points during the competitive application review.  Whether the remaining units are affordable or market rate, neither are designed to meet the needs of those living in extreme poverty (30% and below).

ELDI’s Affordable Housing presentation states that 32% of East Liberty housing is affordable, and includes all of the housing developed in the past couple of decades, broken down by numbers of affordable vs. market-rate units.  Some housing advocates dispute these numbers, and I, too, found some discrepancies.  But what is of greater importance is that a very small percentage of this housing accommodates the deeper levels of poverty that East Liberty once did through buildings like Federal American Properties.  The majority of it is for people earning 60%-80% of the area median income – primarily those with low paying jobs – and not for those who, due to age, disability or whatever reason, are chronically unemployed or unemployable.

The latter cohort is where we find households at or below 30% AMI, who mainly live in traditional public housing complexes and privately-owned, heavily-subsidized developments like FAP.  Because of de-densification strategies and reductions in federal spending, these types of options are evaporating, and causing the strain we see in neighborhoods like East Liberty. Those living at 30-40% AMI don’t represent the largest quantity of low-income people, but this demographic is arguably where the most severe problem lies, as they are one small step removed from homelessness.

When I spoke to Bethany Davidson (then the Neighborhood Policy Director for the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group), she didn’t speak about East Liberty specifically, but described a problem is playing out across the city.  “Those at 40% AMI are renting units intended for 60% AMI.  Those at 60% are renting at 80% and so on, which creates a housing burden at all levels,” she said.  This dynamic was also cited in a 2015 report prepared by Robert Damewood for the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, and this “ripple effect” was also identified in Councilmen Lavelle’s Housing Opportunity Fund legislation introduced in April. Damewood’s report noted that affordable housing supply and demand is in equilibrium for those at 80% AMI.

Where supply is shortest, Ms. Davidson said, is around 60% AMI, and that is where the focus ought to be, given the resources that are currently available.  LIHTC does just that, but in relatively small quantities as compared to our overall need.  And, getting at the needs of those at 30-40% AMI will require more support than what presently exists.  What, then, does exist?

To the Moon

Let’s assume for a moment that Pittsburgh’s shortage of approximately 20,000 affordable units does not grow and the economy remains the same. Has anyone suggested a timeframe for tackling this problem?  I learned from Michael Kumer (then Director of Duquesne University’s Nonprofit Leadership Institute) that bold initiatives need a date on the horizon.  His example: President Kennedy never said, “We will go to the moon someday.”  Announcing that we were going to the moon was bold, but it was the timeframe – “within the decade” – that provided the punch.

Maybe no timeframe is on the table because Pittsburgh won’t build 20,000 units of affordable housing within this decade, or any decade, so let’s say two decades.  Can we build a thousand units per year for twenty years?

East Liberty Phase I replacement housing.

“New construction on Main Street has more sex appeal than stuffing
houses full of insulation somewhere off the beaten path.”

No.  Even if we could, we’re losing some of what we already have every day.  And it’s the wrong question to ask anyway.   The better questions out there are:  How much and how fast are we losing the affordable housing we have?  How much of our existing (unaffordable) housing can be made affordable through modest renovations?  (Those are essentially preservation questions.)  How can we increase supply across the entire affordability spectrum?

As noted in Part Four of this series, we often confuse our abundance of cheap housing with affordable housing; cheap housing usually isn’t affordable, and building affordable housing is never cheap.  But a lot of our existing housing stock is a modification or two away from becoming affordable.  Considering that a low-rent apartment with a $400 gas bill is not affordable to many, $10,000 worth of insulation may make that unit affordable.  Similarly, an otherwise affordable unit that is inaccessible to someone with a disability can be made accessible with comparatively low-cost modifications.  Even major rehab projects cost less than new construction, provided they’re carefully selected to avoid boondoggles.

This could potentially be the ultimate value of Pittsburgh’s affordable housing trust fund. The  proposed $10 million dollar annual allocation to it would exceed the average for the hundreds of trust funds nationwide.  It sounds like a lot of money, but even when leveraged, $10 million is ultimately too little to make a major dent in the housing shortage if new construction is the primary path.  East Liberty Place North and South, for example, cost about a combined $25 million and yielded about a hundred affordable units.

There are catches, however, to the strategy of identifying and making affordable existing structures.  Projects with dedicated funding, such as LIHTC, guarantee affordability for a predictable amount of time.  Their units fit nicely into a spreadsheet that helps a city keep track of what it has and needs.  Neither “naturally affordable” housing (that which happens to be below market rate) nor units that accept Section 8 vouchers get counted towards an affordable housing inventory.  It could be here today and gone tomorrow, and this messes with the spreadsheet.  To make this work, guarantees would need to be in place to keep funded projects predictably affordable into the future.  This becomes someone’s job, and an administrative expense.

But there is a secondary, and perhaps bigger, problem.  New construction on Main Street has more sex appeal than stuffing houses full of insulation or installing wheelchair lifts somewhere off the beaten path.  This isn’t a design, planning or policy challenge – it’s a human challenge.  Like it or not, cutting ribbons with cartoon-sized scissors or throwing dirt with golden shovels is a part of the deal.  Projects, shiny and new, attract a hit parade of developers, architects, banks, foundation and department heads, whereas installing energy-efficient windows and furnaces are the domain of small contractors and honorable organizations like The Pittsburgh Project and Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh who quietly go about their business.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but embracing and supporting the expansion of organizations like those requires a special kind of leadership.

Earlier this summer Pittsburgh was awarded four LIHTC grants from the Pennsylvania Housing and Finance Agency, which is comparable to years past. With the combined award of approximately $4.5 million, local developers will be able to leverage the investment needed to create 164 units of housing over the next couple of years, which can be a mix of affordable and market-rate units.  Without the details for each project, I don’t know what percentage of them will be affordable, but those that are will mostly serve those around the 50% AMI level.  To be clear, this is good news. Yet the sobering reality is that, even if all 164 units are affordable, it’s a drop in the bucket towards our overall need, and does not reach many of those living below 50% AMI.

The 4% LIHTC (the cousin that’s not good at sports) is the primary funding mechanism for affordable housing through rehabilitation, and is cited in the current legislation as being underutilized.  Nick Fedorek, a planner with Mullin & Lonergan, explained to me that the 4% LIHTC application is as time-consuming and complicated as the 9%, and in the end yields only 30% of the needed funding.  In other words, the developer still has a tremendous amount of fundraising to do to make a project work.  It’s for this reason, Mr. Fedorek said, that 4% LIHTC has a reputation for being more trouble than it’s worth, and thus many developers don’t pursue it.  But, because 4% LIHTC applications are non-competitive, they have a much higher likelihood of being approved.  Perhaps it’s time to stop asking the 9% cousin to the dance and ask the 4% instead.  That sounded weird, but let’s move on.

At the risk of piling on, there’s another very real obstacle to whatever strategies Pittsburgh pursues:  the backlog at city government. Pittsburgh’s real estate boom has put immense strain on all of the departments that deal with it. Recently, I stood in line at the zoning counter, behind a man who placed his roll of architectural drawings for a new CVS pharmacy between the wall and his head, then appeared to fall asleep. There are an estimated 2,000 planned residential units somewhere in the existing pipeline, the vast majority of which are market-rate.  It simply takes a long time to snake through the maze of permits and approvals needed to advance a project.  Whether or not affordable housing projects can be expedited remains to be seen, but for now they will have to get in line and take a nap like everyone else.

A 30-year old newspaper
30 years is how long a LIHTC project must remain affordable.

Putting that aside, the tools for creating deeply subsidized affordable housing exist, but are in very low supply.  While projects that apply for LIHTC earn more points by proposing units that serve deeply impoverished people, the majority of LIHTC projects don’t .  Proposed projects may also opt to establish project-based Section 8 vouchers (instead of, or in addition to, tenant-based vouchers), which remain with the unit when tenants move away.  One upside is that the affordable units are accessible to those who aren’t already in possession of a portable tenant-based voucher, for which there are long waiting lists.

All of this brings us to inclusionary zoning – the aforementioned tractor pull in this whole affair.  A complicated topic unto itself, I’ll mention it only briefly here, but you may want to grab a corn dog or funnel cake or both.  Inclusionary zoning (IZ) is a regulatory mechanism that, through incentives or mandates, aims to ensure that a specified percentage of newly created housing units are affordable for a designated income population.  With IZ, a local government could, for example, mandate or incentivize the developer of a 300-unit project to set aside 10% of the units for people earning 80% AMI.  The prevailing wisdom of IZ is that affordable housing production keeps pace with market-rate development as it becomes a routine part of doing business.  This stands as a preferred strategy for housing advocates, particularly when it’s mandated.  

Not so popular, however, with the following: most developers, contractors, apartment and realtor associations; Milton Friedman; the Cato Institute; and, pretty much anyone less liberal than, I don’t know, say, Merrick Garland.

“Homewood has been losing an average of two affordable
units per week for a long time.”

To be fair, the results of IZ policies nationwide are mixed at best.  Denver’s mandatory IZ ordinance, established fifteen years ago, has been under attack ever since by (see above).  To get IZ ordinances passed, local legislators usually include an opt-out feature whereby a developer can pay a fee into a housing trust fund in lieu of providing the required numbers of affordable units.  Such fees are well below the revenue generated by higher rental rates or sales prices, so paying the penalty is a no-brainer, and therefore not really a penalty at all.  Some argue that the upside to this is that the housing fund redirects those payments to non-profit housing developers who may do a better job with it.  Others say it pigeon-holes affordable housing into less desirable locations.

As I stated previously (about 25 minutes ago), many of us are blind to the double-standards of public subsidy towards housing development.  When tax dollars are used to pay for new sidewalks, curbs, utilities and so forth in connection with an otherwise privately financed condo building, it’s called “leverage” or “gap financing” or “public-private partnerships.”  When the same tax dollars are put into affordable housing, it’s called “public subsidy” or “entitlements.”

Pittsburgh’s pending housing legislation proposes an incentive-based form of IZ, which some, like Homes for All Pittsburgh, have criticized, remaining in favor of mandates.  Legal issues aside, this has merits, especially given Pittsburgh’s track record with incentivizing a Visitability Ordinance more than a decade ago.  Visitability, also known as universal design, is the means by which residences can be made more accommodating to people with disabilities.  In the tug-of-war over incentives vs. mandates, the former won out, and anyone (including private homeowners) who builds or renovates housing units to meet Visitability requirements receives a $5,000 tax credit per unit.  The results of this incentive approach have fallen far short of what was predicted.

Cheers (you’re almost at the end)

The historical back and forth at HUD headquarters regarding whether subsidies can be “ported” to other housing developments currently stands as permissible, and East Liberty has made the most of it.  Earlier this year, when I asked Skip Schwab of ELDI for his response to recent media coverage of neighborhood housing, he said, “We’re getting hammered.”  Though many ELDI critics responded with, “As they should,” even they were laudatory towards ELDI’s handling of East Liberty Gardens, another large-scale affordable housing development that had become endangered.

After HUD had wreaked havoc with Federal American Properties, they had the 127 units at East Liberty Gardens (ELG) in their sights, and the looming foreclosure would have brought about more mass evictions. One housing expert familiar with the neighborhood told me that ELDI learned a lesson from FAP, and aggressively intervened.  ELDI used the portability of HUD subsidies to ensure that, this time, they didn’t leave the neighborhood.

Everyone I talked to was pleased with the outcome.  ELDI, the Housing Authority and others collaborated to keep all the tenants in place while new replacement units were planned. Around the same time, a $30 million grant awarded through HUD’s Choice Neighborhood Initiative launched the construction of hundreds of mixed-income units in East Liberty and Larimer that had been in the planning stages for years.  The key difference from developments of the recent past was that ELDI and the others were able to bring HUD’s “deep subsidy” from East Liberty Gardens to this new development, guaranteeing that the 127 households who relied upon it could continue to do so.

The cautionary underside to this success story is that it was a Herculean effort executed by the experienced professionals that many other neighborhoods don’t have.  In those other places, the most accessible means of securing units in which a tenant will pay no more than 30% of their household income towards rent is the tenant-based Housing Choice Voucher.  But hundreds of vouchers are returned each year, unused, because tenants are unable to find property owners who accept them.  Historically, landlords in distressed neighborhoods accepted vouchers, but now less so, as the demographics in places like East Liberty change.

All of this brings us to the question of where, then, should we focus the creation of affordable housing?  East Liberty will be the first neighborhood most people cite.  Like Oakland, East Liberty has the best transit options, along with social service agencies, grocery stores and other retail already in place. However, the revitalization plans for East Liberty never aspired to replace all of the deeply subsidized housing that was lost – such an endeavor is not feasible in the present day economic or political climates.  It is not sustainable, and never was.  Other suitable neighborhoods talk very little about affordable housing, let alone provide it, which may explain why our collective attention continually returns to East Liberty.  Various housing advocates made a similar point to me: if Shadyside, Squirrel Hill and other neighborhoods with access to transit and jobs increased their affordable housing opportunities, it would take much of the burden away from East Liberty.

Above: Larimer/East Liberty, Phase I (28 public units/28 affordable/29 market-rate)
Below: Eastside Bond (360 luxury units)

ELDI says there’s another way to look at equilibrium, arguing that the supply of affordable housing in East Liberty is balanced with the needs of those who live there.  A source of strain, they say, is coming from other neighborhoods.  “Homewood has been losing an average of two affordable units per week for a long time,” Kendall Pelling told me.  His tone was questioning, not defensive, when he added, “Homewood hasn’t built much affordable housing in the past several years compared to what they’ve lost.  Lawrenceville?  Shadyside?  Where do people go when they get priced out of other places?  East Liberty.”

Getting priced out of a neighborhood is an issue most people grasp, but getting “blighted out” is more elusive.  Much of the naturally occurring affordable housing in neighborhoods like Homewood is privately owned, and a contributing factor to its affordability is that many of these owners put very little money into maintenance and repairs.  Rent is collected, properties rot, equity is sucked out, leaving structures worthless and eventually abandoned.  Paying the taxes for many years on a derelict property is usually a cheaper option than demolition.  Over time, entire blocks of naturally affordable housing crumble, displacing residents to other neighborhoods, leaving them with two basic choices.  They can move to a similar low-rent, low-investment neighborhood and repeat the cycle, or move to a neighborhood that has the resources and know-how to create higher-quality, subsidized affordable housing, such as East Liberty.

If there is a major takeaway from all of this, it may be that housing is both a national and regional issue that we have been treating as a neighborhood problem for quite some time.  It’s been a high stakes game of Whack-a-Mole: beat down the problem over here only to find it pop up over there.  Perhaps the upside to recent housing tragedies, such as FAP and Penn Plaza, is that the discussion around affordable housing is happening citywide and beyond.  This discussion is being made manifest in the work of the Affordable Housing Task Force, as well as the broader efforts to establish Community Land Trusts throughout the region.

It’s not my place to judge or even ask whether or not “the new East Liberty” has done enough to balance the needs of its residents, past and present.  In part because the very essence of the question perpetuates this notion that the affordable housing crisis can be mended neighborhood by neighborhood.

Part Seven of this series will focus on two contrasting approaches to the preservation of existing housing, and the impacts they’ve had on the affordable housing supply.

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