by Elizabeth Blessing | February 10, 2019
Microsoft Affordable Housing

A lot has gone on in the world of affordable housing recently. First, we talk about Microsoft’s half a billion dollar investment. Then we report on what has California’s new governor fuming mad. Lastly, we ponder the ups and downs of spending the night at Walmart.

Let’s dive in…

Microsoft Antes Up a Cool Half Billion Dollars

Microsoft was in the news recently with its pledge to commit $500 million toward affordable housing in the Puget Sound region. Microsoft president, Brad Smith, cited statistics showing there simply isn’t enough housing for the people who live and work in the area.

While jobs in the area have grown by 21% since 2011, growth in housing construction has lagged at 13%. And, of course, as we all know a high demand and a low supply of something leads to an increase in prices, which is exactly what has occurred with home and rental costs in the greater Seattle region. In the past eight years, housing prices have skyrocketed 96%, making the area the sixth most expensive housing market in the US.

But before we get too excited by Microsoft’s $500 million affordable housing jackpot, let’s unpack what this figure really means.

First, most of this money is not a gift or a donation. Of the $500 million pledge, only $25 million will be actual philanthropic gifts. These will be in the form of grants to address homelessness in the greater Seattle area.

The majority of the money represents loans which Microsoft expects to be paid back with interest.

They’re making $225 million available as loans for the preservation and construction of middle-income housing in six cities east of Seattle. They’ll offer these loans at an interest rate lower than whatever the current market is offering. This housing will be affordable for teachers, nurses, first responders and other middle-income wage earners who are currently priced out of the housing market.

Then there’s the $250 million the company is making available as loans for the construction of low-income housing across the entire King County region. The company will offer these loans at market rate returns.

So, developers of affordable housing and government agencies who take Microsoft up on these loans will need to pay the money back with interest, allowing the company to lend the money out again to others.

Now this isn’t to say the Microsoft money isn’t a good thing or that the company shouldn’t be applauded for its efforts. Certainly, access to additional funding could make a huge positive impact in the region. And having a giant company like Microsoft put a spotlight on the problem could put pressure on other companies to follow suit with their own initiatives and funding.

But let’s be realistic. A lack of money is not the only reason why we have an affordable housing crisis. Experts have cited a whole host of reasons — such as exclusionary zoning restrictions, government bureaucracy and regional NIMBY-ism — as other factors contributing to the lack of housing.

In fact, Microsoft acknowledges this, saying money alone is not enough to solve the problem. They say the most critical thing is for public policy to change to make it easier and more attractive to build new housing.

So, what are your thoughts on Microsoft’s $500 million plan? Will it really make a dent in the housing crunch? Do you think it will get derailed by special interests and tough zoning laws? Is it too little, too late to make a difference?

We want to hear what you have to say. Click here to send us your feedback, comments and questions.

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California Governor Files Lawsuit in Affordable Housing Showdown

In a move that just might signal the beginning of a new trend in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom is suing the city of Huntington Beach over its lack of affordable housing. Newsom, who recently took office as California’s new governor, is trying to make good on his campaign pledge to address the state’s housing crisis.

Part of that pledge is to ensure local municipalities follow the state laws mandating that cities allocate enough land for new housing. According to Newsom, Huntington Beach has effectively blocked new development by enacting some of the strictest zoning laws in the state.

Back in 2015, a group of Huntington Beach residents complained to the City Council about plans to build new apartments and condos. They felt the city was growing too fast and the plans would lead to densely populated neighborhoods that would destroy the area’s small-town feel.

The City Council responded to these complaints by toughening up their zoning codes, which resulted in reducing the number of homes built by 2,000 units.

Affordable housing activists then sued Huntington Beach, saying the city’s decision violated state law and meant there was no longer enough land zoned for low-income housing development.

While the appellate court ruled in favor of Huntington Beach, Newsom’s latest lawsuit could spell even bigger trouble for the city, a battle they might not win as easily this time around.

That’s because there’s a lot at stake for Huntington Beach. In an aggressive and controversial tactic, Newsom has threatened to punish communities that don’t follow the state’s housing laws. He says he’ll withhold state transportation tax dollars from these cities, a pot of money communities rely upon for much-needed transit improvements and road repairs.

Communities who are on board with the governor’s plans, however, stand to benefit greatly. Newsom just unveiled his state budget proposal, which includes over $2 billion in new spending for housing programs.

Only time will tell if Newsom’s carrot and stick approach will incentivize California city officials to enact zoning reform and other measures needed to increase the supply of housing.

On one hand, city officials are under the threat of losing huge sums of money from the state if they don’t comply. On the other hand, they have their local voting constituents who say they want more housing, but just not in their neighborhood.

And in the middle of all this? Those low- and middle-income folks who are struggling to find decent housing in California’s expensive cities.

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Walmart Wants You to Spend the Night (Well, Sorta…)

According to the RV Industry Association, 1 million Americans live full time in their RVs. Some people choose this lifestyle primarily to save on housing costs, while others enjoy the freedom and adventure that traveling the open road brings.

A not-so-hidden secret in the RV world is that giant retailer Walmart offers a solution to those road weary RVers who are looking for a place to park their rigs. Many Walmarts across the country allow RV owners to park for free overnight in their store lots.

The company’s website says they consider RV travelers among their best customers. Because of that, they permit overnight parking in many of their lots as long as there are no local ordinances prohibiting it.

Now how big a deal is this free overnight parking in the RV world? Well, from the numerous YouTube videos and articles we found online discussing the topic, most people think it’s a pretty huge benefit.

Given that RV campsites cost anywhere between $25-$80 or more per night depending on location and amenities, you can see why some folks plan their travel route around the availability of nearby Walmarts. The demand is so great there are even apps showing which stores around the country allow overnight parking.

Of course, there are a few downsides to spending the night at Walmart. They don’t offer electrical service or accommodations typical of most campsites. It’s a no-frills experience at best, and you probably won’t be getting any fabulous nature views that you would from a national park.

You won’t be allowed to grill outside or set up your lawn chairs next to your vehicle. Generally, it’s for one night only and then you’re expected to leave before the store opens the next morning.

Most RV blog sites recommend good etiquette and a gracious attitude when taking advantage of Walmart’s generosity toward RVers. This includes common sense stuff like not leaving any trash behind, parking on the perimeter of the lot, not blocking access to the delivery docks and spending at least a few bucks in the store to stock up on supplies.

But like so many other things in life, a few bad apples are ruining it for everybody else.

Some clueless folks have been videotaped leaving mountains of trash behind for Walmart employees to pick up, overstaying their welcome well beyond a single night or two, taking bathroom breaks right in the parking lot, and participating in other un-neighborly type behavior.

So, some store managers have been left with no choice but to prohibit all overnight parking at their individual stores. And what a shame that is… because when you think about it, Walmart’s willingness to share its parking lots is a pretty cool thing.

Sure, you could be cynical and say they’re just doing it for the potential revenue they might get from their overnight visitors. But you could also see it as a corporate giant’s way of saying thank you to its customers.

For some, it might seem like a small gesture, but for those people living the RV life (many of whom truly need and appreciate the savings of free parking for their rigs) it’s a lot more than that.

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