Should Affordable Mean ” Lower Quality”

Posted on January 24, 2020 by Danielle Holley

Should Affordable Mean “Lower Quality”

We keep seeing “affordable housing” in the news. We all want more affordability. The question is how? A simple solution certainly does not exist, but we should consider one aspect of affordable housing in particular: doing things affordably or even cheaply. The obvious way to make something more affordable is to spend less money making it.

How does one spend less money constructing a building or a home?

If a builder was inclined to build more affordable housing, they could apply to city councils for variances to ordinances that require certain aesthetics or densities. Usually, the more “aesthetic” requirements a city or neighborhood has for buildings, the more expensive they are to build. Additionally, if a region has multiple nuanced construction regulations, the more expensive their permits and fees may become to fund enforcement and inspection of those rules.

When a community has specific density requirements, usually in favor of single-family homes or duplexes, accessible land can become scarce and drive up prices for available parcels to be developed where fewer homes will fit. “Up-zoning” or removing density restrictions is becoming a trendy topic nationwide, but communities need to be careful to clarify that this is not a green light to infill with poorly built product for the sake of “affordability”.  

Using cheap (read: unskilled) labor or cheap materials is a quick and obvious way to cut costs when building anything. This is one of the biggest risks we face when asking for “affordable” housing. Although the construction industry is again booming, our construction labor force has not been fully restored to pre-Recession numbers. Some estimates suggest we are only at 67% of what we had before 2008 and that many of the highly skilled individuals switched industries or retired. Like many trade professions, the construction industry is struggling to fill the ranks with new people which both drives up costs for existing labor and could restrict the availability of a quality baseline.

If a builder wants the work done quickly and/or cheaply (and who doesn’t?), many of the more affordable contractor options include workers with limited skills or experience which may require more oversight. Another easy place to cut costs: oversight. There are not specific legal requirements - beyond the contractor having a license and a permit - to provide oversight which might catch and prevent poor workmanship or glaring errors due to inexperience. Not having to account for the salary of a management level skilled tradesperson or the fees of a third party can save thousands of dollars, but could also result in shoddy work.

Finally, one should consider the materials. Everyone understands that most consumer products come in a range of qualities and prices. This range also applies to construction materials. While most materials have to meet certain basic standards for safety and content to be sold in the United States, manufacturers are constantly inventing new products that have not necessarily been tested for long term durability. Unfortunately, the testing is being done in the field, on our homes, to see if those materials are acceptable.

New homeowners cannot be expected to have functional knowledge of whether certain building components were installed correctly or if everything meets basic standards of functionality. They place their trust in the builders, tradespeople, manufacturers and city inspectors who designed, created and approved the building. They should not be asked to accept more risk in favor of affordability.

Affordable housing is a tool for us to access the housing market and begin the process of building personal wealth through equity or sale. If we create housing that effectively locks entry-level owners in place because of poor construction, they are held hostage to the situation. This can happen when after a few years, the home will no longer pass inspection for a re-sale due to defects and poor original workmanship – not due to lack of maintenance. Homes built poorly, quickly, and with junk materials become a liability to their owners and their neighborhoods in a few short years and we should do everything in our power as a society to prevent it.

With the population explosion in Colorado, lots of well-built homes and are needed now. But we cannot allow ourselves to accept cheaply or poorly built housing because it is affordable. What is the solution? There might not be just one. It will have to be a suite of small fixes: increased density, less NIMBYism, fewer elitist aesthetic restrictions, lower fees, lower profits, encouraging our children to learn trades, more visas for immigrant tradespeople, higher standards, fewer fancy finishes (it’s a starter home!).