Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Housing Affordability Problem? Great!

America is beginning a remarkable transformation involving the re-urbanization of many upper-middle-class households. This trend is driven by a number of factors, including aging baby boomers, traffic jams and environmentalism.

Predictably, cities like Oakland will likely fail to take advantage of this trend because of their bizarre attachment to slums.
As far as I know, I'm the only East Bay blogger who actively opposes so-called "affordable housing" no matter how it's packaged. I categorically oppose it because it runs counter to any sort of optimistic vision of a growing, thriving city.

Affordable housing is designed to entrench those who are unable or unwilling to compete in the economy. It:

  • Takes valuable land from those who would be willing to pay more for it and allocates it to others, disrupting the natural economic balance and distorting pricing signals in the marketplace.

  • Creates "haves" and "have nots" among the poor by randomly selecting some of them to help. Economic reality makes it impossible to give every poor person a piece of coveted property without adopting full-on socialism. (Incidentally, labor unions do the same thing, but that's for another time.)

  • Invites corruption by allowing government officials to distribute benefits to their cronies and their cronies' cronies.

  • Discourages mobility. Much like rent control and prop 13, it makes the optimal strategy to never ever move apartments or houses, for fear that costs might rise. Thus, people turn down new job opportunities for fear of losing their government perquisites.

  • Fosters mistrust among the potential higher-income residents by signaling that government is "out to get them." This is also the reason why no Oakland high school can attract the best students. Parents won't even give the schools a chance for fear that government officials will find yet another way to stick it to them.

  • Carries with it the presumption that certain types of residents are more desirable than others.

    • If anyone's more desirable, wouldn't it usually be the wealthier resident?

    • Why not let the market decide who is more desirable?

V Smoothe writes, "Of course" there's an affordability "problem" in Oakland. What's that even mean? If people couldn't afford the prices charged for housing (whether to rent or to own), they would look elsewhere, and prices would decline. Obviously, outside of the housing bubble fallout, that's not happening. And that's great for Oakland! That means people want to live here. Why would we want to disrupt that?

The answer is simple: Petty selfishness. Governments enact policies like affordable housing because there are a set of people who want to get whatever they want, by whatever means necessary. In this case, they've failed to get what they want through the economy by competing, so now they want the government to change the rules of the game and just declare them the winners.

Now, I can hear people saying that I'm just piling on the "victims" in this situation. Such an argument is pure sophistry. No one is suggesting laws which tilt the scales of government against the poor. The scales should be flat for everyone, rich and poor, black and white. This is the proper function of government.

People like to argue that we need affordable housing so the people who work as low-wage service employees in a given city can also live in that city. The problem with this argument is that, in a supply-constrained environment, it's a zero-sum game. For each service employee who gets a spot, you have to kick out one lawyer, banker or engineer. Instead of the low-wage employee living in a suburb, the higher-income person moves there. So, the suburbs prosper while the cities suffer.

And, of course, the policies don't even have their intended effects. I know a couple who purchased a home using a special "affordable" mortgage by simply having the lower-earning spouse apply for the loan without the other. Everyone is familiar with the stories of well-off retirees living in absurdly cheap rent controlled apartments. The bottom line: Housing responds very well to economic signals, and by harnessing capitalism instead of railing against it, cities like Oakland can attract more affluent residents.

It's always so saddening to me to ride BART along the Highway 24 corridor. Cities like Orinda and Lafayette are the direct beneficiaries of the ridiculous policies on this side of the Caldecott Tunnel. In past generations, cities competed to attract the sorts of coveted residents and businesses which now flock to our eastern neighbors (and, humorously, Emeryville). These days, our cities compete to entrench ghettos and provide excellent housing for parolled felons.

To what end? To make our cities "funky?" I submit that we would do just as well on that score if we abandoned these policies. The Bay Area is full of interesting people with good jobs who would like to live in the sort of urban environment we can provide.

And besides, murder, rape, graffiti and wandering ne'er-do-wells are not "funky." They're symptoms of cultural suicide. We should be fighting against these forces, not inviting them in.

It's time to set aside these "affordable" housing policies, and pursue a rational, competitive drive to attract the best possible residents -- those who have competed in the economy and done well. In other words, we should let the market decide who lives here.


  1. Right on! Prop 13, rent control, inclusionary zoning are all examples of well-meaning policy (although I question more and more how well-meaning advocates of these policies really are)causing disastrous unintended consequences. Do we really want government engaging in this level of social engineering by attempting to maintain particular racial and income demographics?

  2. Include me in your list of opponents to inclusionary housing (in any form). As with all of these 'social justice' policies, when you get to the bottom of them, they all boil down to one thing: Handing out money for nothing. What do opponents of gentrification (the bete noir of all that's good and great in the Marxist world we live in) want? Why, silly, it's just this. They want the neighborhoods cleaned up; they want crime reduced (though, not by putting anyone in jail of course); they want shops and businesses to move in (but only if they're 'locally owned' and sufficiently green); AND, they want the prices of houses not to go up! My my, how is that miracle to be performed? Simple, stupid, we just print money and spread it around and then everyone will make nice. There's a great Monty Python skit about this kind of attitude, I'll try to find it and link it.

  3. Oh, and one more thing. There really is no affordability problem in Oakland or the rest of the Bay Area. Right now you can find houses for under 200K in Oakland. That's under 1200$ a month in mortgage, a huge chunk of which comes back in a tax deduction. What there's a shortage of is affordable housing where the streets are clean, the other houses nice, the neighbors well educated, etc., etc. So again, I guess the answer to that is to give money away and that money can either come from others or it can be just printed up. Of course there's also a shorage of 5000K sq. ft. homes with pools and tennis courts overlooking the Bay for what I can afford. As usual, it's called economics and would that more people understood it.

  4. Definitely do post the Monty Python skit. I'd love to see it.

  5. Here's the link to the Monty Python skit I remembered--I can't find video, but here's the script. I'm not sure I can link with html so I'll just copy and past the URL

    You have to hear it to get the full pathetic earnestness only those guys can do.

  6. Before you post the last post, I found a video link for the sketch. Here it is

  7. I could not agree with you more, the last thing Oakland needs is any more affordable housing. Oakland currently has 55% of all the affordable housing in Alameda County, but is home to only 28% of the total residents of the county. These numbers are way off and did not occur randomly, they are the product of Oakland government who just keeps taking taxes from the middle class and feeding it to low income projects. The Oakland City Council never does anything for the homeowners here who foot all the bills and when I tried to get a movement going in my below 580 neighborhood to oppose more affordable housing you would have thought I had suggested we roast small children and eat them for dinner. If we could change just this one policy Oakland would change for the better and quickly too.

  8. I agree with you that affordable housing destroys the community. Here in Oakland, much of what our government does destroys the community. I'm starting to think the problem is less with the idea of affordable housing, and more with the inept goverment we have.

    Perhaps affordable housing should be part of a safety net we offer, so that someone who finds themselves in a horrible situation, has some time to make other plans. Is it unreasonable to help someone who is dealing with a crisis? Perhaps counseling should be a part of this so that the person could get emotional support to do what has to be done to get back on track.

    A strictly enforced limit on the length of time anyone could live in affordable housing would help focus people on taking responsibility for solving their own problems, as best they can.

    Affordable housing is subsidized by someone. A limit on how long anyone could stay in subsidized housing would also limit the demand for the subsidized housing. There would not be as much of this needed, and its impact on the community would be lessened.

    There's too much of the subsidized housing focused on too few areas. The latest joke being played is that the Oak Knoll re-development area was allowed to pay the City to locate the required affordable housing in some other area.

    The area below 580 is used as a dumping ground for affordable housing, because as one council member explained "land is too expensive elsewhere". In other words, the City likes having a depressed area because it can then afford to build more housing which it can dole out to citizens for more votes. Shocking as this may be, our government does not want our neighborhoods to improve because that drives up the price of the services it seeks to deliver.

  9. All housing IS affordable... or else it would be vacant. The complainers just don't like doing what needs to be done in order to afford what they want.

  10. [...] That couldn’t be further from the truth (and I’m glad that at least one person who gets that). I oppose inclusionary zoning precisely because it will stymie our efforts to create affordable [...]