May 12, 2007

Helping Whom Live Where

Justin Katz

Somebody asked me, the other night, what I would do about the housing affordability problem, and to be honest, I didn't have much of an answer. I guess I'm not at the point, yet, of having comprehensive understanding of or prescriptions for every important issue, and housing is still one of those for which I've mainly reacted to specific developments based on an inchoate sense and general principles.

In constructing a notion of what we, as a society, should actively do about affordable housing — and to avoid creating an invisible barrier to communication between people with different approaches — it seems advisable to divide our thinking into two perspectives:

  • Helping a particular family to afford housing
  • Increasing housing for such families

On the first aspect, there's a degree to which acknowledging society's developmental history requires us to admit that, as difficult as it is, sometimes families just have to pull up stakes and find that place in which both housing and opportunity exist. If we increase assistance to those who are being priced out of the system, we increase their threshold for sticking it out rather than moving where they could live more comfortably (and productively).

We also keep the pay rates of low-end, but necessary, workers artificially low. The market mechanism might not be wholly adequate, but if store clerks (say) are forced to move out of the system, then there will be fewer around, and stores will have to pay more per clerk, thus increasing the ease with which they can pay for housing.

Permeating this all is the fact that providing sufficient subsidies to make a difference in as expensive a housing market as Rhode Island's will increase the burden on families across the spectrum, including those (such as mine) that are just barely able to afford the housing that they've managed to acquire. So, for the side of the question that seeks to help particular families to afford housing in Rhode Island, the not-surprising solution that I would offer is to implement some variation of the conservative, free-market panoply of policies that, in essence, seeks to help families to afford higher standards of living because they can afford higher standards of living, not because their neighbors can afford to subsidize higher standards for them.

In other words, help low-income families to become less-low-income families. Help them to start businesses. Reduce the barriers and regulations that constrain career ventures. (For example, as far as I know, my 2005 observation that Massachusetts's licensing laws will produce twice as many master plumbers in about a decade as Rhode Island's still stands.) And as another approach, make their housing dollars go farther by decreasing costs and fees for building, renovation, and, perhaps most glaringly, property taxes.

As far as direct government investment in resolving housing problems is concerned, however, I think we're better off concentrating on the second perspective, and it isn't sufficient to mandate percentages of "low income housing," not the least because that engenders hostilities and divisions — building housing for those people because we have to, rather than because we have an opportunity to. Instead, our focus should be on thinking creatively about ways in which to encourage the development of housing that is more likely to be of the sort that we need, such as zoning to encourage the placement of apartments on top of businesses and garages. We must consider the flip-sides of health-related regulations, such as the percentage of property that must be put aside for septic systems and the number of bathrooms that can feed into each.

Indeed, the most appropriate area for local and state governments to invest in housing is the expansion of utilities (such as sewer systems) so that building is less expensive and easier precisely where it is more likely to be of benefit to lower-income families — that is, in out of the way and densely populated areas. (This, of course, would involve an easing of the mandated costs associated with public construction activities.)

To my experience, though, Rhode Islanders are reluctant to allow their neighbors' property to become multifamily lots. They dislike the prospect of construction disrupting their daily lives. And they darken at the idea of development in open areas — even if they only drive down that road once a year to get their Christmas trees.