Magazine April 20, 2020, Issue

Letters

A carpenter works on a new home in Las Vegas, Nev., April 5, 2013. (Steve Marcus/Reuters)

Home Cheap Home

In his article “The Unbuildable American Home” (March 9), Kevin Erdmann makes the strong case that high prices of houses in major cities are due to policymakers’ using zoning laws and other regulations to prevent developers from building new housing units. This is demonstrably happening, yet there are various densely populated cities, such as Seattle, where workers are stuck between making enough money to not be eligible for the public-housing system and not making enough money to be able to afford living in the community. Many of these families are living inside their cars in church parking lots. Maybe the best solution is freer and more open markets to help close this gap. Or maybe the most direct option is for local, state, or federal government to provide subsidies to low-income households.

John Pai
Smiths Station, Ala.

Kevin Erdmann responds: It is certainly true that there are immediate needs that might be best served through public intervention and subsidy. But let’s consider those interventions.

One solution would be to build more public housing. In cities where obstructions to market-rate housing have become extreme, public housing is affected by many of those same obstructions. So it is frequently reported that public units in the San Francisco area might cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each. Even effective direct public intervention is prevented by the underlying problems that prevent market-rate building.

Another solution, called “inclusionary zoning,” would be to allow builders to create more market-rate units if they agree to build below-market units, too. While this may lead to short-term gains of affordable units, it is still using the tools of exclusion, so those short-term gains come at the expense of long-term gains. Builders should be allowed to build all sorts of homes in greater density.

Another solution would be to give under-housed families cash so that they can afford the housing that is available. What if a city has 4 million homes and 20,000 families who are homeless or under-housed? If it gives those families $15,000 to help them pay rent but still has only 4 million homes, at best it has changed the distribution of those homes. The only way for everyone to have a home would be to implement a policy that creates a city with more than 4 million homes.

It is easy to excuse certain cities by blaming geographical constraints for their lack of growth, but geographical constraints are just part of the political problem. Political obstruction has more power against infill development where there are many who assert that they are stakeholders. Reducing the overreach of those powers is the key to creating abundant housing where undeveloped land is not widely available.

Furthermore, it is especially important to make sure that public interventions aren’t used as stalking horses that make the underlying problem worse.

 

Correction

Because of an editing error, “The Miracle That Never Ceases” (Richard Lowry, March 23) referred to “the classic Texas high-school match-up, John Tyler versus East Plano.” The name of the latter school is in fact “Plano East.”

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