“Affordable Housing” Isn’t Just Taxpayer Cheese
D.C. political commentator Chuck Thies thinks all this talk about high housing costs is just so much bellyaching. As far as I can tell from his recent column, he's arguing that since most of the people getting jobs in the District are young and childless, they should just go live in the cheaper suburbs. He concludes:
I’m all for making sure senior citizens are not displaced. As well, working families and single parents with roots and jobs in the District should be given a fighting chance to prosper here.
But taxpayers should not be asked to spend a dime on affordable housing for young, single residents without children. There are plenty of market rate solutions to their housing concerns. They come in the form of suburbs, group homes, roommates and sacrifices.
There are a bundle of misconceptions here.
One: That it's simply "many young people" who are complaining that the rent's too high, and that they refuse to live with roommates in group houses, and that it makes much more sense for them to just go live where housing is cheaper. I'm not sure how many young people Thies knows, but most the ones I know do live in group houses, and if they don't, it's a choice they make to live a certain lifestyle—when you're unencumbered by kids or a car, living in a place within walking distance of your social world is worth spending more than half your income on rent. Besides, living in the suburbs isn't as cheap when you factor in transportation, and long commutes are bad for your health and the environment.
Two: That groups like the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute advocate subsidizing those whiny young folks. Couldn't be further from the truth! The Coalition for Non-Profit Housing and Economic Development is largely focused on the poor and long-term residents whom the market isn't serving—through programs like transitional housing for homeless women, single-room-occupancy facilities for men going through drug treatment programs, or rental assistance for families on the Housing Authority waiting list (which, at 37,000 families long, is not something a transient yuppie is going to wait through).
Three: That "affordable housing" is all about taxpayer dollars being spent on somebody else's living expenses. Yes, we often understand the term as applying only to below-market-rate housing paid for by public subsidies. But our market rate housing stock could and should be more affordable for more people, too—no city should roll over and accept that its young, mobile residents must leave in order to survive. And the District isn't like every other city: It has perhaps the biggest mismatch between supply and demand, since building heights are capped by federal law and further restricted by zoning (much more so than in New York City). In D.C., developers are building luxury stuff because there's demand, but also because land is expensive, and they can only build so many units, so each unit must be higher-priced in order for them to recoup their investment.
It's not a bad thing that developers are building expensive housing. All those wealthy people generate more tax revenue that can be directed into helping the less fortunate cope with the rise in property values caused by the construction of luxury housing. But it only works if the city is able to accommodate more housing for everybody, whether allowing for taller buildings or smaller lots or the legalization of accessory dwelling units and English basements (we're at least doing the last two).
Of course, transportation, public safety, and neighborhood amenities like parks and grocery stores play a role in this too—there are affordable neighborhoods that people with some means don't consider viable because you have to leave them to get basic necessities. The point is, the District needn't give up those people, nor lose the ones who've lived here forever. The rent is very much too damn high, but it doesn't have to be. That's what a comprehensive housing strategy is all about.