Housing in Brief: What is Social Housing?

Plus: California governor vows action on homelessness. And Houston wants to distribute affordable housing credits more evenly.

In Vienna, Austria, about 62 percent of residents live in social housing such as this building, the Alt Erlaa, compared to 1 percent of Americans.

In Vienna, Austria, about 62 percent of residents live in social housing such as this building, the Alt Erlaa, compared to 1 percent of Americans. (Photo by Dominik “Dome” / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Social Housing in the United States

As local tenants’ rights groups and national progressive coalitions have begun making bolder demands for federal housing action over the few years, the term “social housing” has started slipping into the lexicon. But what is it? The Community Service Society in New York has published an explainer on its website. “The term social housing is commonly used to describe a range of housing ownership, subsidy, and regulation models in Europe, South America and elsewhere around the globe,” the report says. “These models often go far beyond what’s known as ‘affordable housing’ in the U.S. to promote permanent affordability, democratic resident control, and social equality.”

Typical affordable-housing programs in the U.S. may seek to achieve some of those goals, the report says, but social housing means building and maintaining housing in the public interest, and insulating it from market forces that incentivize speculation. “A major commitment to social housing is a long-term goal that requires a re-definition of the public sector’s role in housing provision and stewardship,” it says. “While the U.S. is today politically and economically far from this re-definition, local and national groups are organizing for, and coalescing around, a transformative housing vision.”

Houston Wants to Distribute Housing Support More Equitably

The Housing and Community Development department is taking a new approach to deciding which projects to support in their applications for federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits with the goal of spreading new affordable housing more evenly across the city, the Houston Chronicle reports. Low Income Housing Tax Credits are administered by the state, but projects seeking the credits often need local support. Houston has traditionally supported all applications that meet “a base threshold on its scoring criteria,” the report says. Now, the city is supporting fewer applications overall, and prioritizing projects in the most expensive parts of town that traditionally don’t see new affordable housing. Housing department officials framed the change as a matter of both increasing local control in the LIHTC process and pursuing fair housing goals, according to the report.

Only about a quarter of applications for LIHTCs are approved in Texas, and as Next City has reported, advocates have repeatedly pushed for changes to limit state lawmakers influence over their distribution. The process has been ripe for political influence and NIMBYism, advocates say. Other efforts have sought to reduce elected officials’ influence over LIHTC distribution altogether. In Houston, housing officials are now seeking to support projects in city council districts with below-average rates of affordable housing. Council members had mixed reactions to the change, according to the Chronicle. “What we are trying to do is prioritize areas that have been underrepresented for a while,” a housing department assistant director said, according to the report.

California Governor Addresses Homelessness in State of the State

“It’s a disgrace that the richest state, in the richest nation — succeeding across so many sectors — is falling so far behind to properly house, heal and humanely treat so many of its own people,” California Governor Gavin Newsom said in his recent State of the State speech, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times. “Every day, the California dream is dimmed by the wrenching reality of families, children and seniors living unfed on a concrete bed.”

A rise in California’s homelessness rate led a nationwide increase last year. Its homelessness rate is driven by a lack of housing that’s affordable to people at a range of income levels, with the lowest-income residents at the biggest disadvantage. The state is also ground zero in the NIMBY/YIMBY debates, with housing advocates divided over how much to focus simply on new supply versus targeting new affordable housing to historically marginalized communities. SB50, a bill that would require cities to permit dense housing near job and transit centers, and which a symbol of the YIMBY, supply-above-all approach, recently died its third death in the state legislature. In his speech, Newsom called for new revenue for homelessness reduction, and easing permitting for constructing new shelters, according to the report. The speech signaled that homelessness would be a top priority in Newsom’s second year in office, the paper reported. “The State of California can no longer treat homelessness and housing insecurity as someone else’s problem, buried below other priorities which are easier to win or better suited for soundbites,” Newsom said, according to a transcript of the speech.

This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. Subscribe to our weekly Backyard newsletter.

Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.

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Tags: affordable housinghomelessnesscaliforniapublic housinghoustonsocial housing

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