‘Eternally complex problems’: Bipartisan advocates talk affordable housing in Arizona

A bipartisan group of housing reform advocates, from current and former state lawmakers to government leaders, gathered recently to talk about the lack of affordable housing in Arizona and solutions.

The Sept. 28 event was organized by nonpartisan nonprofit Arizona Talks with the aim of facilitating civil dialogue about affordable housing. Most of the speakers touched on how the issue is a personal one and requires bipartisan solutions.

“We all have a housing story, even if you are unsheltered, we all understand the importance and value of housing,” said Joan Serviss, who leads the Arizona Department of Housing.

There is disagreement about how to solve the housing affordability problem, with differing opinions on zoning reform, rent-control measures and what housing assistance should look like – or whether it should exist at all – said Jessica Boehm, Axios Phoenix reporter and the moderator of the event at Arizona Wilderness DTPHX Beer Garden.

“We need to be able to get down to work with each other, even people that we might not agree with right away,” said Amy St. Peter, deputy executive director of the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG).

She and other speakers said that the lack of affordable housing in Arizona cannot be denied.

Since 2017, rents have increased by 68%. Median home prices have risen nearly 33% in the past two years as interest rates have risen, and eviction rates have increased 22% since January 2020, according to statistics compiled by MAG.

In 2010, 90% of rents were under $1,000 with 20% under $500. By the end of 2022, only 10% of rents were under $1,000 with virtually none under $500, the MAG data shows.

Arizona Rep. Analise Ortiz, a Democrat who represents west Phoenix and south Glendale, shared stories of Arizonans who struggle to pay for housing, from fixed-income seniors, to adults moving back in with their parents, to her own story.

“I did everything right. I went to college. I lived with my parents throughout college and worked full time to save money. I got a job immediately after school and the career that I was striving for,” Ortiz said. “But even so, I’ve moved from apartment to apartment.”

The cause of the problem

In the early 2000s, single-family homes were popping up everywhere in Arizona. Then when the housing market crashed in 2008, foreclosures began happening along entire neighborhood streets, Boehm said.

Today, Arizona is facing the opposite problem.

In the early 2000s, an average of around 40,000 units per year were built, with a peak of more than 48,000 in 2005. After the recession, the number of units built dropped to about 6,600 in 2011, according to MAG’s Housing Data Explorer. From 2011 to 2022, 254,300 units were built, compared to 389,400 between 2000 and 2010.

The state is now severely underbuilt, after homebuilding nearly ceased following the 2008 recession, Boehm said. “The crux of our affordability challenges in metro Phoenix can boil down to something we all should have learned in Econ 101, and that is supply and demand.”

As of fiscal year 2022, 270,000 housing units needed to be built to meet the demand, according to the Arizona Department of Housing.

“In the meantime, people figured out what we already knew here – that Arizona is kind of a great place to live, and they started moving here,” Boehm said.

Home prices have risen with demand.

“My parents bought this home (in Phoenix) for $72,000 in 1989; today, it’s worth $750,000,” Ortiz said.

What can the state Legislature do?

An entire generation of young adults is locked out of homeownership, and other elected leaders are not doing anything, Ortiz said.

Statewide zoning reform, a rollback of city-level regulations, stronger renter protections and corporate investor regulations are all needed, Ortiz said.

Zoning is expensive and has too many stipulations for builders, so they charge more to buyers and tenants to make a margin, said Steve Kaiser, a former Republican state senator from north Phoenix.

Kaiser said that the divided environment at the Capitol, lacking agreement and compromise, prevented him from passing any affordable housing bills.

“We need political courage down at the Capitol because a lot of people voted ‘no’ because of pressure,” Kaiser said.

Kaiser resigned from the Legislature in June after only three years, and said he felt nothing would get done on housing policy reform. He now runs the Arizona Prosperity Project, a nonprofit organization focused on education, workforce, housing and the free market.

Solutions to the problem

Serviss, who was appointed to lead the Arizona Department of Housing by Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs, emphasized the importance of having a governor who prioritizes affordable housing.

Serviss said one good thing that happened this legislative session was investing $150 million from the state budget into the Arizona Housing Trust Fund, which funds various housing initiatives.

Some regional programs are also in place, like Maricopa County’s Threshold program that attracts and retains landlords who offer affordable rents, but more of them are needed, St. Peter said.

“The term affordable housing has been bogged down with some really negative connotations, and just using that phrase can stop more conversations than it starts,”said St. Peter, noting the importance of reframing housing discourse. “We might disagree on the term affordable housing because so often that drives people straight to a particular type of housing.”

Using the term “affordable rents and mortgages” is something that can be used to develop a shared language to invite more people into the conversation, St. Peter said. “We need a more diverse array of housing options in every single community. … It’s not about telling people or telling neighborhoods, ‘This is what you should do,’ it’s about making options available so that people can have that full array of choices.”

The “us and them” narrative that surrounds affordable housing discourse makes it really easy to dismiss those in need, St. Peter said in an interview. “We’re very quick to blame, to place blame for them being in a situation for them needing affordable housing.”

A greater understanding of what is contributing to people’s housing situations is needed, St. Peter said.

“It’s not just about building more housing,” Kaiser said. “It’s about homelessness, too. We have a massive crisis with homelessness, which is tied to a crisis in housing.”

He went on to say that there is a false narrative around losing home value when more building happens.

“I understand the fear. Your home is your largest investment. I understand that. But you’re not going to lose any value. It’s been proven time and time again,” Kaiser said.

But many speakers noted that there is not any one single solution to solving Arizona’s affordable housing crisis.

“There is not a bigger challenge we are facing as a community right now,” Boehm said. “Homelessness and housing security are very complex, eternally complex problems.”

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