Editorial: Common sense housing solutions are a great idea
People frustrated with government often cite one troubling factor: a lack of common sense.
It may sound like a committee spending months debating a solution to a problem that your ordinary person on the street finds pretty obvious. A good example is the time it takes to decide to put a stop sign in a place where cars regularly collide.
It can also take the form of spending a lot of money to answer a question that maybe no one was asking. Carnegie Mellon professor emeritus Robert Kraut conducted a study for the National Institute of Mental Health on why people — including bowlers and hockey fans — smile. It has been criticized as a waste of government money. (In fairness to Kraut and his partner, Robert Johnston, like many other studies, this has deeper meaning and impact than a toothy smile after a strike.)
But sometimes the government can do something right, even if it seems almost accidental.
On August 23, the Pittsburgh City Council introduced legislation to find solutions to homelessness. Included were instructions for city departments to identify 40 city-owned plots of land that could be part of the solution by being used for things like small homes, temporary shelters, and seasonal heating or cooling shelters.
However, the need for affordable housing has not been overlooked. At least 10 of the plots to be identified would be for affordable housing – to rent or to buy.
On Tuesday, the council heard another proposal. Councilor Deb Gross has sponsored a bill asking Mayor Ed Gainey to produce a report on “secondary suites” that could be part of a solution. These may be spaces in attics or basements that could be converted into acceptable rentals or turn a garage into a dwelling.
Today, the zoning does not allow the construction of new detached secondary suites. But they were once used in the city and may still exist. The legislation wouldn’t change that, but would help the council get a better idea of what the city’s housing stock might be like.
This is a smart move for a number of reasons. First of all, starting with information is always a better idea than just making a decision only to find out why it won’t work when it fails.
Second, it recognizes this intrinsic link between homelessness and affordable housing. People become homeless when they fall from the bottom rung of the housing ladder, especially in a time like this when rental rates have skyrocketed. This makes it more difficult for people to escape homelessness, as even the most basic housing remains out of reach.
Even better, it invites owners to be part of the solution rather than adversaries. It’s often difficult to sell the idea of affordable housing to areas that may be all for it – as long as it’s not in their neighborhood. By looking at secondary suite options, it creates a way for people with existing real estate to create new sources of income. It could be a way to give up that second job or not have to drive Uber. It could be more stable than renting rooms on Airbnb and could allow empty nests and older residents to find ways to keep the homes they love.
These ideas solve problems by bringing all ideas to the table with healthy servings of common sense. Perhaps other communities — and the state legislature — might pay attention.