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What is social housing?

Dear Editor,

I am a faithful reader but could not find a definition of “social housing,” which occurred in a number of articles. If you or one of your staff could offer a definition, I’d be much obliged.

As a retired fishery biologist, I write to those in power about climate change, but the current crisis has opened my eyes to the broader range of interrelated issues we must address. Thanks for any help you can offer.

Joe Hiss

Dear Joe,

Social housing is basically affordable housing. That’s because it’s housing protected in some way from the swings of the marketplace—and the power of investors. Often “social housing” refers to rental housing that’s owned and managed by the state or non-profit organizations or a combination of the two. There is usually some kind of means test.

The Thurston Housing Authority owns housing units and makes them available to low income families. Across the state, various nonprofit agencies manage subsidized apartment complexes. Yakima farmworkers have access to some government assisted housing, but others have to live in housing provided by farm owners.

There are also trust and co-operative arrangements for housing priced according to a standard of affordability or cost. These arrangements allow for accumulation of equity, but at the end of a tenure, the departing resident gets their equity plus accumulated interest. The dwelling doesn’t go on the market, but reverts to the trust or co-op so that it remains within reach of families who rely on salaries and wages for a living. An example of trust-structured housing is Lopez Community Land Trust.

In Olympia, a local group just started the Thurston Community Land Trust with the goal of acquiring housing to manage outside the market. Woodward Lane Co-housing in Olympia is an example of another alternative to market-driven housing. Some cities have created programs to offer qualified buyers access to dwelling units protected from market forces. Cambridge MA has such a program. We don’t know of any in Washington.

The Editors

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