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  • Writer's pictureJ.P. Irie, CoL fellow

Housing Crisis: The Game

At a recent housing affordability workshop, participants put themselves in the shoes of an Atlanta renter. Things got complicated.

Illustration by Minh Huynh

Your name is Nicole. You’re a single mom of two middle schoolers, one of whom is an aspiring violinist. You just got a new job as a receptionist at a law firm in Atlanta—making $46,000 a year—and you’re looking for an apartment. Where will you go?

This was the question to answer at a recent Neighborhood Planning Unit University workshop, held in the clubroom at the top of a spiffy apartment complex on the Westside. NPU-U is a City of Atlanta program designed to teach residents about public policy, zoning, and urbanism. Two dozen people participated in this experiment, which one of the instructors—Carolina Rodriguez, an assistant director in the City’s Office of Housing & Community Development—likened to a high school home economics lesson. The goal of the exercise, Rodriguez said, is to help participants build understanding and empathy, better evaluate the housing market, and identify ways it could be improved. 

Attendees—including a real estate agent, a CDC employee, and a loofah farmer—split into four groups to choose one of five scenarios to explore. Our group chose Nicole’s. Nicole makes just under 60 percent of the area median income, so she qualifies for government-subsidized housing. Our first goal was to divvy up her wages among rent, groceries, utilities, and the like.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development decides what affordable apartments should cost. But, as we discussed Nicole’s budget, we quickly realized HUD left several variables out of the picture. Our budget worksheet specified that Nicole would live in a one-bedroom apartment. We decided she could sleep in the living room while her two kids shared the bedroom. Her rent would be $1,085. (Here in our spiffy apartment complex on the Westside, "workforce housing”—set aside for people making 80 percent of the area median income—starts at $1,506 for a studio. Without housing vouchers, a two-bedroom costs more than $2,600.) 

Location was not something we addressed. Where is Nicole’s new office? Where do her children go to school? How far is the nearest grocery store? After payroll taxes ($7,038), transportation ($95 for one 30-day MARTA pass), groceries ($312.95 per person), and utilities (monthly average of $411, according to one estimate), we had only a few hundred dollars left at the end of the month. Basically, we concluded, Nicole was broke.

When I asked my group members if they learned anything from the experience, they shook their heads no, indicating that, perhaps, the people who attend housing affordability workshops tend to understand the issue already. What the exercise did, however, was help us explore—and, importantly, quantify—how affordable housing standards leave little flexibility for families. HUD’s income limits only account for pre-tax income when determining what bracket a tenant is in. And HUD itself acknowledges that putting 30 percent of an income toward housing (the agency’s affordable housing standard) can be too much for some families. 

Neither HUD nor our “experiential learning” exercise gave Nicole—with her leftover $285 each month—much of a chance to prepare for life’s unpredictability: What if she gets sick? What if her daughter breaks her violin? •


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