Affording Housing

The topic came up again. How can working people afford housing? I’ve always been aware of the choices too many people must make to find a place to live. Going to school (Virginia Tech) next to Appalachia will do that. Now, as a real estate broker, I’m hearing about it much more. Thanks to the talks I’ve given at the local libraries, I was invited to yet another meeting of people struggling to help people who are struggling. The meetings have been about Whidbey Island, but one factoid from the most recent meeting proved the issue is pervasive.

One estimate suggests the nation needs 11 million affordable housing units, but only 4 million are available.” – More About Too Little Housing

As they pointed out in the meeting, this isn’t even about homelessness (which is bad enough). This is about finding places for people who have jobs.

By common guidelines, incomes under ~$60K can be considered low income, especially when measured against housing costs. From a quickly typed tweet; “a $36950 annual means a $923 rent target but $1600 is the market rate.” ” – More About Too Little Housing

It’s enough to make some people think about moving across the country. I’ll use my family’s house near Pittsburgh and my home near Seattle as examples. Zillow estimates my family’s 925 square foot house at about $130K. Zillow estimates my 868 square foot house at about $340k. Sure, mine has a view; but similarly sized houses on Whidbey without views are at about $295K. Take that $295K and go to my childhood neighborhood and get a house four times larger. I’m not planning to make that move, but others might – especially if they are driven by necessity.


But, who wants to move? Businesses, careers, and jobs don’t pack and ship as easily as movers can move a household. Young families in dynamic industries may be able to do so; but older folks may not. Besides, sometimes culture does matter. Don’t be surprised to find members of the LGBTQ community who purposely left their family’s community, and who don’t feel welcome, or even safe, in similar regions.

Several years ago I almost lost my house. Thanks to a lot of work, government programs, and a volunteer organization I was able to keep it. (More about that soon as a critical long-term milestone approaches.) While going through that I had to consider my options in case we didn’t succeed.

Sell the house

That’s an obvious first consideration, but keep in mind that the mortgage, sales costs, and commissions get subtracted from the sales price. Even if there’s money left over, the issue of relocating work and life will cost money, too; and includes the risk that the move will not succeed. But, for some, they may find that they have been land rich while being cash poor. I can think of several people who can retire sooner than expected – but they’d have to give up their home, a view, a garden, a lifestyle.

Get a roommate

Getting a roommate works if the house works. Adding an extra person to an overworked septic system isn’t a good idea. Every house has quirks, but if everyone adjusts to them, then there’s a bonus of a pile of stories to tell later. Ideally and mathematically it can work, but divorces can happen because two people in love can’t manage to live together. Two strangers might have the same issue. Another bonus: increasing the number of people living in a house dramatically reduces the carbon footprint.

Become someone else’s roommate

Same logic, but flipped, and comes with the freedom of being able to move on if something better arises.

Go communal

Communes never really went away. They’ve resurfaced in a variety of forms: intentional communities, co-ops, community land trusts, commons, etc. Gather people with similar goals and situations, gather their money, and build to fit on common land. At least this way everyone can have their own place, share common ground and resources, and share the costs. Economies of scale don’t just apply to corporations. Ironically, corporations are now providing such services, primarily for young people. Businesses are offering dorm-style living to people just graduating from college and dorm life. It’s an option.

Get small

Sometimes affordable housing comes down to square footage. Tiny saves money, one of the prime drivers for many people buying and building tiny houses. Many Americans continue to think that bigger is better, but enough are waking up to spaces that are just big enough that governments are changing regulations. Find a friend or family member who’ll let you place an ADU (Auxiliary Dwelling Unit, or Accessory Dwelling Unity, or Another Done Undercover) on their property. Build it on wheels and if you have to move, you can. Land is required, though.

Live aboard

No. Land is not required. People have lived aboard boats, ships, and floating houses for centuries. Moorage, however, is required; but it’s probably cheaper than rent. Oh yes, and your house could sink; so, expect to use some of those savings for some very non-trivial maintenance. But, you can also move it too, as the waters and officials allow. Get rocked to sleep, whether you wanted it or not.

Buy land and build

All of the houses are too expensive? Land is usually cheap(er). Building a building isn’t cheap in time, money, or frustration; but design a house for your lifestyle and it may be so efficient that you save money – eventually. Finding a place to live in the meantime can be an issue. In the time it takes some to shop for a house, other could buy and build. Just make sure you get the right permits, and make sure you find the Fountain of Patience to get you through the process.

Buy lottery tickets

Hey. It can work. In the midst of everything else, a $1 ticket can feel as likely as the other options.

Those aren’t all of the options, but they’re the ones I hear about from those who have as they talk about those who have not. Those who have not are already exercising other options, the ones that make the news like homeless camps, living in cars, couch-surfing, squatting, sneaking back in to sleep at work, and maybe even moving back in with the folks – regardless of everyone’s age.

As I mentioned above, these are most of the options I considered when I almost lost my house. After I considered them once, I find myself continuing to consider them. The only constant is change and I realize my situation can change in a moment. Both good and bad news can happen without warning. I hear echoes of those quandaries in every housing meeting I attend. Think back to the first statistic at the top of this post. Millions of people are pondering the same thing. If the answers were easy there’d be more time to consider other big issues like health, family, and the much larger community.


This week’s meeting’s title was “Issues That Matter – Housing, Where will we all live?” Housing is difficult, but maybe we’re talking about it because it is easier to mention than the core issue. Don’t blame the house. Lacking wealth or income is the core issue behind affordable housing, not housing. Take a look at the options above. Given enough money, people can exercise their resourcefulness and make a home for themself. Wage growth, income inequality, wealth inequality, economic issues are critical issues; but they are issues that are harder to address than finding some land, some contractors, some inspectors, and some homeowners.

Don’t blame the house. Don’t blame the homeowner.


Formal Disclosure:
I am a real estate broker with Coldwell Banker Tara Properties in Bayview.

About Tom Trimbath

real estate broker / consultant / entrepreneur / writer / photographer / speaker / aerospace engineer / semi-semi-retired More info at: and at my amazon author page:
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