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GUEST COMMENTARY: Valparaiso needs more affordable housing

GUEST COMMENTARY: Valparaiso needs more affordable housing

Valpo now has three brewpubs, but that’s not all that’s been brewing in recent years. The gentrification debate has finally come out in the open in the Vale of Paradise.

On May 22, some two dozen Valparaiso clergy — Lutherans, Catholics, a local rabbi, evangelicals and other churches — presented a letter to the Human Relations Council and the City Council reminding the powers that be of their prior acceptance of the 2014 civic vision plan (called ValpoNEXT) which included this section:

3a. Ensure Affordable Shelter. Welcome all (not only in word but in deed), by ensuring affordable housing for disabled and minimum wage workers in Valparaiso, through a joint initiative of the city and nonprofit sector. This will require the city to develop a housing strategy and staff resources to implement.

The letter concludes: “As leaders in the community, as people of faith, as citizens and neighbors, we ask you: take action now. Pursue the recommendations from the Altogether Valpo Housing Subcommittee. Establish a comprehensive housing plan ensuring that within the next 15 years, everyone who works full-time in Valparaiso can afford to live in Valparaiso.”

We’ve been here before. As far back as 2004, professors Larry Baas and James Old at Valparaiso University’s Community Research and Service Center did a thorough study of affordable housing with final recommendations. No action was taken.

Back in 2007, the late Allan Bloom, one of Valparaiso University’s most beloved teachers, and Old wrote a prescient critique of the direction things were going. We were moving, they argued, toward a 19th-century style of town building called the City Beautiful movement.

In other words, since the arrival of the Costas administration in November 2003, Valparaiso had pursued policies that emphasize commercial development, beautification, civic culture, efficiency, and health and fitness. Bloom and Old gave our mayor high marks for all these efforts, even before the unveiling of award-winning Central Park Plaza, the Urschel Pavilion and our participation in the America’s Best Cities competition.

So where’s the problem here? Simply in the fact that, as the authors put it, this approach to development “benefited the wealthy at the cost of the poor, stressed aesthetics above the practical, emphasized optimism at the expense of realism, and, at the bottom line, was simply too expensive to justify.”

Thus, the authors argued, the city administration “energetically sought out partnerships with commercial interests in the city but has not reached out with the same vigor to social agencies that represent the interests of the poor and working classes who have serious concerns about the affordability of a city with an already difficult housing market for lower-income residents and where new home construction is focused on the high end.”

So there were no attempts at civic partnerships with our area’s shelter organizations like Housing Opportunities, Project Neighbors, etc.

That was 2007. Since then, the poverty rate in Valpo has gone from around 10 percent to almost 15 percent, which equals 4,247 residents living in poverty, 60 percent of whom are female and 25 percent under age 18. Students qualifying for free and reduced lunch in our school system are now at the 29 percent level, with two elementary schools now over 50 percent.

According to the United Way of Porter County’s calculations in 2010, 41 percent of all the households in Valpo were either in poverty or fell into the broader category of Asset Limited Income Constrained and Employed (ALICE). That is, they were working but struggling to survive, not paying all their bills.

If you rent, the HUD benchmark figure for housing affordability is no more than 30 percent of your income. By 2010, for example, almost half of all renters in Valpo were paying more than that.

Reality check: If you are a newly hired police officer with a spouse and two children, you simply cannot afford the average fair market rent of a three-bedroom apartment (about $1,200 to $1,300) in Valparaiso unless you want to live with a completely unbalanced family budget. Same if you’re a school teacher.

If you happen to be a waitress, desk clerk, fast food worker or security guard (i.e., making around $20,000 annually), sorry, you just cannot live in and enjoy the town where you work and contribute to the local economy.

The issue is not entirely one of cost. Remember when you could see lots of two-flats, four-flats, courtyard apartments, “granny flats” in our towns? That kind of lower-return housing is called “the missing middle” and is built much less frequently today, given the profits possible if you put up some nice high-end townhouses. The latter can and will be built; the issue is how to maintain housing diversity.

Some civic leaders are fine with letting market forces shape our future and even argue — against any and all evidence — that there is no affordable housing problem in Valpo.

Our local pastors, on the other hand, get a closeup glimpse of the human face of the Other Valpo. And they finally decided to write a letter to the city about what they observe daily.

Thus far, the city has not indicated it is considering any such housing initiatives or strategy, although we might hope outgoing Mayor Jon Costas could decide to enhance his legacy even further if he chose to champion this worthy cause.

Were Allan Bloom alive today, I think he would be organizing citizens — including lots of folks who until 2008 thought they were part of a stable “middle-class” — to make sure Valpo is “the most civically engaged city of our size.” He would also want that engagement to translate into concrete steps toward inclusion and fairness. That’s really how you make a city beautiful.

Elias Crim is a civic entrepreneur living in Valparaiso and a committee member of the ValpoNEXT initiative. The opinions are the writer's.


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