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How Does The City Of Bloomington Define 'Affordable' Housing?

A row of homes in Bloomington

Homes in Bloomington's Habitat For Humanity Trailview neighborhood. (Barbara Brosher, WTIU, WFIU News)

One of Bloomington’s long-standing development goals is to offer a number of diverse housing options, both for residents now and for the future.

This includes a variety in dwelling sizes and a range in costs.

But resident Michelle Hahn says she’s noticed an uptick in housing costs over time, and is curious what the city deems as affordable.

“Somebody just told me what affordable was and it was above what I pay in rent. So it made me wonder what does affordable mean in Bloomington and is it actually affordable?” Hahn asks.

And moreso, she’s curious if the definition is crafted with all residents in mind.

“I would like to know if there could be more a definition of affordable for who,” she says.

With the most expensive housing market in the state, Monroe County faces a complex combination: low wages and high housing costs.

Deborah Myerson is the executive director of South Central Indiana Housing Opportunities. She says this gap is, in part, due to Bloomington’s growth as a desirable place to live.

"It’s that basic economics of supply and demand, you’ve got low supply and high demand that drives prices up faster than incomes,” she says.

Myerson says the basic guidance for defining “affordable” housing is based on a formula from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Typically, this is when the housing cost is no more than 30% of a household income.

But she says there often are debates over whether this is the best definition.

For those with a high income, spending 30% on housing is realistic.

But there’s more to this issue. Many low income residents have to pay a much higher percentage of their income for housing, leaving less for other necessities.

That’s where federal government programs come in to help these residents find affordable housing. Households with incomes below 80 percent of their area’s median income likely qualify for federal assistance. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated Bloomington’s median household income in 2017 at $33,172.

Doris Sims is the director of the city’s department of Housing and Neighborhood Development. She says affordability in Bloomington has always been a relative term and varies from person to person.

“30 percent or less in median income is just a gauge by which we use to determine affordability. But, I think that other things go into what is considered what’s affordable and not affordable,” Sims says.

She says within the HAND department, they work to provide household types for all Bloomington residents. In this effort, HAND has provided homeless housing in collaboration with Life Design, Evergreen housing for senior citizens and the elderly and has overseen progress on a low income housing complex, B-Line Heights.

READ MORE: What's Bloomington Doing To Address Affordable Housing?

“So we do work across the spectrum with developers to build housing, for not just a specific population, but among the different spectrums of needs in our community," Sims says.

Affordability is a moving target. That’s why both Sims and Myerson say new approaches are necessary to ensure everyone can afford a place to live.

Myerson says that includes adjusting housing policy and targeting the housing need that should be met. She says raising wages is also important but it’s just a start.

“Increasing the supply of housing is another start. Looking at ways to help subsidize housing to build the gap between income and housing costs,” she says.

The question Michelle Hahn asked can be answered by percentages and data points. But the challenges and strategies set forth by Sims and Myerson more closely explain the reality of providing affordable housing for all.

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