Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Affordable Housing and Density

The foundational pillars for eradicating poverty in the United States are housing, child-care, and education.  Notice that I did not include government sustenance programs in that list, such as welfare or food stamps.  The latter are mere humane salves suppressing the symptoms of poverty, which do little to resolve the underlying condition.

Matthew Yglesias has written a 64-page booklet and/or long form article about affordable housing entitled "The Rent is Too Damn High", which focuses primarily on how anti-density zoning laws create artificially high real estate prices, encourages sprawl, and prevents lower income families from living in desirable areas.  As Yglesias notes, scarcity, by its nature, inflates prices.  Zoning laws that limit building height, housing units, and even percentage of property upon which structures may be built, creates de juris scarcity that is regulated by local government.

In his book, Yglesias, a left-leaning economist for Slate, advocates for deregulation of the market through up-zoning, opening up land development to meet demand in order to lower the cost of living in desirable places.  He acknowledges that density does not come without its own problems (traffic, crime, noise), but responds that the market should respond when density has reached its marketable limit (i.e., when no one else wants to move there).

If you're like me, this is a very uncomfortable idea.  But let's look at what happened in Columbia.  Our County government maintains a ceiling on development through zoning laws, artificially inflating prices, which are then made affordable for low-income families through subsidies paid for by developers and taxpayers into perpetuity.  Due to the limited housing stock, and limited resources of developers and taxpayers, affordable housing will always be capped and there will never be enough to meet market demand.  Meanwhile, the people who really get the bad end of the stick on all of this are those who make too much for affordable housing but not enough to afford the inflated housing stock.  Yet again, government policies burn the middle class.

An even more important point that Yglesias makes is that land is to agrarian economies as proximity is to service economies.  Over the past 50 years, our economy has firmly shifted from a manufacturing engine to a service engine.  We do less with our hands and more with our computers.  Density promotes service economies by bundling services in proximity to users. 

Places like Baltimore have shown that density is no panacea for social ills, but it seems to be a much more reasonable solution to affordable housing than the "cap and subsidize" plan we're currently following. 

That's all for today.  I goofed yesterday and said the On-line Town Forum was yesterday, when we've actually set it for tonight.  I look forward to discussing this topic and many others with you at 7:00 p.m.

Have a great Tuesday doing what you love!