One person’s “affordable housing” is another person’s “shelter poverty.”

What does the term “affordable housing” mean? Is it the same as workforce housing? Section 8? What’s low-income housing? Or public housing? It’s easy to get confused.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines affordable housing as housing that consumes 30 percent or less of a household’s income. By this definition, whether you live at the publicly funded Alazan-Apache Courts or the luxurious Cellars at the Pearl, you may be living in affordable housing.

But of course, when city officials, including Mayor Ron Nirenberg, reference San Antonio’s affordable housing shortage — 153,000 units, according to one 2013 study — they’re not talking about the Pearl or Stone Oak or any other affluent community.

So what are they talking about? This question has popped up of late in local public discussions — from the mayor’s housing task force to debates at City Council over which housing is affordable, and which is not.

The most conventional definition says that households that make less than the area median income (AMI) — $63,500 for a family of four in San Antonio, according to HUD — are likely to rent affordable housing. By this measure, a family of four whose income is 80 percent AMI — or, $50,800 — can afford a rent of $1,260 a month when applying HUD’s 30 percent rule.

But is the AMI the right metric for San Antonio? Is 30 percent too low or too high a chunk? How does it relate to the local costs of other needs such as food, clothing, transportation, childcare, medical care, etc.?

Perhaps this is the most difficult and pressing task ahead for the housing task force: to make the term “affordable housing” clearer and less ambiguous. Before the group determines how much affordable housing is needed (a more up-to-date figure than the aforementioned 2013 number), before it determines how much it will cost and who will pay for it, before it weighs in on where it should go, there’s the existential question: What is affordable housing in San Antonio? And in this economically segregated city, what is affordable in one neighborhood versus another?

“Sometimes, images of run-down areas or unsavory people creep into (people’s minds), which is unfortunate,” said Veronica R. Soto, the city’s Director of Neighborhood & Housing Services Department.

Perhaps the concept of “shelter poverty” can help in that understanding.

The phrase was coined by the late Michael E. Stone, a professor of community planning at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, who believed that the 30 percent figure was arbitrary. He said that a household’s income could be divided into two parts: the cost of housing and the cost of everything else (food, medical care, etc.). Two households earning the same amount of money may not be able to afford the same housing because every household’s non-housing needs differ, he said.

Take the household’s disposable income (after taxes) and subtract from it the cost of meeting non-housing needs, he said. What’s left is what the household can afford to spend on housing.

“For all low-income families, and many moderate-income families, paying 30 percent (or even 25 percent) of their limited income for housing does not leave them with enough money to meet their other needs,” Stone wrote in the New England Journal of Public Policy in 2004. “On the other hand, many high-income households actually have no hardship even if they pay considerably more than 30 percent for housing.”

“People paying more than they can afford on this sliding scale are shelter-poor — the squeeze between their limited incomes and excessive housing costs leaves them with not enough money to address their non-housing needs at a minimum adequate level,” Stone wrote.

What Stone’s work really highlights is the difference between affordable housing that’s discussed and planned by public officials, and often built by developers, versus what families can actually afford.

Consider a discussion at City Council two weeks ago (conversation starts at the 53:00 mark) regarding a $35 million mixed-income housing project that’s included in the Red Berry Estate redevelopment on the East Side. The mixed-use project, which includes commercial and business components, is seen as a catalyst for growth around the AT&T Center — something the Spurs arena was expected to do, but never did.

During the presentation before the council, Assistant City Manager Lori Houston started to talk about the 330 housing units included in the project — 50 percent (165 units) will be leased to individuals or families making at or below 80 percent AMI ($50,800). The other 165 units will be leased at market-rate.

The presentation drew cheers from the council — except for District 9 Councilman John Courage.

Calling Houston’s presentation “disingenuous,” Courage argued that 80 percent AMI — $50,800 — is still more than many households in that area make.

“They said, yes, it’s below market — it’s 80 percent of that HUD estimate of income — but it’s certainly way above the affordability index of people who live in that East Side area,” Courage said in a later interview. The former teacher taught social studies and special education for about 20 years at East Side schools including Wheatley Middle School.

Houston argued that the 80 percent AMI metric was just the threshold. Other rents would be offered at 50 percent and 61 percent AMI, she said. She told the Council that at 50 percent AMI, a family making roughly $30,000 could afford a one-bedroom at a monthly rent of $850. A family making $38,000 a year — 61 percent AMI — could afford a monthly rent of $1,075, she told council members.

To spare you the math, her calculations were based on a third of one’s household income, 33.3 percent, being devoted to housing.

After she was asked by Folo Media to explain the numbers, Houston emailed back with new calculations to reflect HUD’s 30 percent benchmark.

“A couple or individual whose annual income is $32,800 could afford the 1 bedroom at $820 per month,” Houston wrote. “A family whose combined annual income is $43,000 annually could afford the 2 bedroom at $1,075 per month.”

There was no mention of whether this was before or after taxes. Also, HUD’s 30 percent figure refers to all housing costs, not just rent. Houston said her calculations were based on this standard.

“I want to stress that (80 percent AMI) is the cap,” Houston said.

The strategy for Red Berry was to establish market-rate rents in that pocket of the East Side “in hopes of generating more market rate development,” she wrote in a later email.

She added that there are six tax credit housing projects within two miles of the Red Berry site that total 1,300 units. During the presentation to Council, Houston said that the community requested workforce and market-rate housing, which is what’s being delivered.

Another question came to mind after listening to the Red Berry conversation: What’s the difference between workforce and affordable housing? Houston described workforce as housing that’s 80 percent AMI.

But to many, the term, like most housing terms, is ambiguous.

“When we talk about workers, who are we speaking about?” Lourdes Castro-Ramirez, the task force’s chair, posed to the group and audience members at its own meeting two weeks ago. “There is a lot of confusion about affordable housing … it also conjures up images in people’s minds, so if there is, for example, a housing development coming into the neighborhood and there’s an affordable housing component, it immediately sets off certain bells in people’s heads.”

Maria Berriozabal, another task force member for former Councilwoman who has been studying housing in San Antonio for many years, picked up where Castro-Ramirez left off.

“Some people are starting to use ‘workforce housing,’ which means it’s different in every city depending on the wages that you have,” Berriozabal said. “We are a city that has a lot of service workers, so the housing that would be affordable for them might not be what we describe as affordable.”

Two weeks ago, Tia Gibson, a local advocate who works with single parents through an organization called Monster Moms, speaking before the mayor’s task force, offered another option.

“When you guys talk about our criterion and what you feel is affordable housing,” she said. “I feel like you should be talking to people like us.”

This article was originally published by the H.E. Butt Foundation’s Folo Media initiative in 2017.