Loaded like springs after our Sunday afternoon visit to the North Museum, my kids ran down the paved path of Buchanan Park with light steps but roaring loudly as they pretended they were dinosaurs. I caught up to them at the swings and started pushing while I struck up a conversation with another dad at the playset.
We both happened to be new to Lancaster. I just bought a home, and he was still house hunting. He moved here from Philadelphia and was surprised at how affordable the homes in Lancaster were. He didn’t know it yet, but I happen to know a lot about housing.
Determining home affordability used to be a simpler affair: In 1953, Sylvia Porter, then the advice columnist for the New York Post, was asked how much someone should spend on a house. Porter responded by sharing the advice of the day that dictated taking your annual gross income and multiplying that by two or, at most, two-and-a-half. So if you earned $4,500 for the year (which was not unusual then), your house should cost $9,000 or no more than $11,250.
If we applied Porter’s advice today, a family of four earning Lancaster County’s median income of $59,000 should buy a house between $118,000 and $148,000. Instead, we go about setting our budget to buy a home very differently.
Today, with interest rates around 4.75 percent, and even with some debt, that same family could qualify for a loan just over $200,000. There are not many properties at that price point. Worse yet, according to Census data, nationwide the building industry is constructing fewer homes in this price range than in the last 20 years. This isn’t because homebuyers are not creating demand, rather that’s how much it costs for a for-profit builder to develop the land; it’s just not cost-effective.
The kids dismounted the swings one by one and ran off with some other neighborhood kids a little younger than they. What was their home like?
A home that is safe, warm, dry and low cost is a fundamental building block for a better future, especially for lower-income households. Ongoing research that is regularly featured on HowHousingMatters.org, a platform by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, repeatedly show that students with an affordable home do better in school, wage earners perform better at work, and all inhabiting that space are healthier.
Dr. Megan Sandal of the Boston Medical Center and Children’s Health Watch has been credited with this catchphrase among housing advocates: “Affordable housing acts like a vaccine.” Sandal’s research has tied several positive health outcomes to a root in the condition of the home.
According to surveys conducted with Enterprise Community Partners, to afford a better home, most respondents would say people need to make more money, so they need a better-paying job, so they need more and better education — thus concluding that the latter is the key.
Education and schools are indeed critically important for success, but if the home is safe, warm, dry, and affordable, our children will be healthier and perform better in schools. This is because an affordable home is one the family stays in, allowing students to attend the same school, form relationships, and even serve as a bulwark and refuge against anxiety. Out of these stable environments comes better job performance, higher wages and home ownership.
Still at the park, our kids were on the slides and climbing the ladders. I, along with my new friend, watched them run and play with the other neighborhood kids while we stood under the overcast sky.
“I guess a better question,” he said, rethinking the “low $800s” billboard message, “is not how is that affordable, but who is affordability for?” And we motioned to those little girls and boys on the playground.
Andrew Szalay, AMP, is executive director of Lancaster Lebanon Habitat for Humanity. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.