That Development is Affordable Like Pizza is a Vegetable

By Stephen Yoshida

A lifelong Chicagoan, Stephen is a proud graduate of Lane Tech with an architecture degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology. He covers the City of Chicago development and housing policy through the City Bureau Documenters program. 

Vegetable (Noun)One of the required components of reimbursable meals; 2. A quarter cup of tomatoes served as two tablespoons of tomato paste. As defined by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA)

For those unfamiliar with the “pizza is vegetable” meme, here’s some context: in 2011, the Congressional spending bill allowed the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to define the tomato puree in pizza as a vegetable and count it towards nutrition requirements in tax-funded school lunches. President Obama signed the bill on December 23rd, 2011. Merry Christmas, public school children.

This is the most famous case of the government’s game of tricky, statutory definitions. The public says, “We want nutritious meals for the kids,” the Feds play with the definition of “nutrition,” and what we get is a “statutorily nutritious” styrofoam tray of pizza, a fruit cup, and chocolate milk. This game is also played with affordable housing.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), for rent and utilities to be considered “affordable,” they should cost no more than 30% of the household gross income for households earning less than 80% of Area Median Income (AMI).

The trick here starts with how HUD defines the “area” in Area Median Income. In Chicago, our “area” is the “Chicago-Joliet-Naperville Fair Market Rent Area.” This means the median incomes in the most affluent Chicago suburbs are included, inflating the overall median income of the “Chicago area”. For example, the median income for the ZIP codes HUD counts as the “Chicago area” is $81,000 per year. In Naperville, it’s $130,000. In Chicago, it’s $66,000. In the Englewood ZIP code 60621 it’s $24,000. Applying HUD’s inflated regional average income places “affordable” housing out of reach of working people.

Let’s consider a hypothetical statutorily affordable housing development in Englewood for people making 60% of AMI. The law limits the rent for a one-bed apartment to $1,173 per month. An Englewood household interested in renting that unit needs to make $46,920 to afford to spend 30% of their income on rent, per HUD statutes. Even when dual-income households are included, $1,173 in rent is out of reach of three-quarters of the neighborhood. What’s more, the project’s developer gets big tax-funded grants!

For families, the outlook is even worse. Let’s say an Englewood family has two adults and two teenage kids and the parents want to give them their own rooms – a standard amenity among the middle class. That family needs to earn $65,040 per year to afford a three-bedroom apartment. But HUD limits how much applicants can make to qualify for “affordable” housing. The maximum income for a 4-person household that’s eligible for that apartment is $62,520. You’d need to earn too little to afford the rent to qualify. And this is even worse for three- and four-bed units.

The City of Chicago knows this system doesn’t work for poor families. In the January meeting of the Chicago Plan Commission, then Chicago Dept. Housing Commissioner Marisa Novara spoke on a “mismatch” between the cost of family-sized apartments and what poor families can afford. Plan Commissioner Guacolda Reyes, also Chief Real Estate Development Officer of Pilsen’s Resurrection Project, says she’s never even seen four-bed affordable units because there aren’t any qualified applicants. The City’s development agenda is raising property values and tax revenue by replacing poor Chicagoans with rich out-of-towners. “Affordable” housing is a performative charade. 

The truth is, that statutorily-defined affordable housing houses our communities as effectively as rectangle pizza nourishes kids. Like pizza sauce being a vegetable, “affordability” is nothing more than bogus, legalistic wordplay. It’s a taxpayer-subsidized distraction from the ongoing displacement of Chicago’s working families by a colonial gentrification industrial complex. Now is the time to quit the greasy “affordable housing” game. In Pilsen, they say “El barrio no se vende” or “Our neighborhood is nor for sale.”  Through organizing for power, we, the people of Chicago, can put an end to the destructive practices of the real estate speculators by removing the land our communities sit on from the market. This strategy is called “decommodification.” It is when neighbors own and manage their land together from building to building through cooperatives and from block to black through land trusts. Only when we find ways to take our ball and go home can we stop playing.