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TinotopiaLog → ‘Affordable’ Housing and Public Servants (26 Sep 2003)
Friday 26 September 2003

‘Affordable’ Housing and Public Servants

So it appears that Prince William County, Virginia, may wind up building a housing project for its workers to live in.

Prince William, which has long been a middle-class suburb favored by military families and government workers, now struggles with a problem more commonly associated with wealthy resort towns or maturing, affluent suburbs. The willingness of leaders to consider teaming up with developers to build apartments or houses for county employees shows how concern about affordability has spread outward to the fringe of metropolitan Washington.

A hot real estate market in Prince William has driven costs higher in the last several years, and the county has encouraged the building of high-end housing after years of booming townhouse construction. To complicate the matter, Prince William has relatively few apartments, which would provide more options for young and lower-paid workers. There are nearly three times as many apartments per person in Arlington County and Alexandria as in Prince William.

And, of course, it is totally out of the question to just allow builders to build the kind of housing that’s, you know, actually in demand in the county.

County planners and officials are considering a range of possibilities, including more help for workers in getting low-cost loans, working with nonprofit groups to subsidize mortgages, and working with developers to build apartments or even group homes meant for younger, single workers. Those units might be clustered in a workers’ “village,” officials said.

So their options are either to subsidize people to live in places they really can’t afford, or building a worker’s village or group homes. It’s really a shame I can’t italicize that group homes further, to show the how mind-bogglingly idiotic I think this is.

Let’s step back a bit, here. In the United States, in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., representatives of the government are talking, with presumably straight faces, to the Washington Post, about building group homes for ‘younger, single workers’. Talking about building what amount to worker’s hostels, something they’re even getting away from in eastern Europe and Russia.

The apartments or houses would be built with private money, and the county would guarantee a certain number of rentals at a set price, officials said. The county would pay the rent on any units that weren’t leased.

Because it would be unheard-of for a builder to construct apartments that he then attempted to rent in a free market. This never happens.

Of course, it does happen in some places, but rarely these days in American suburbs. At the same time people are complaining about the lack of affordable housing — the cost of housing actually has increased much faster than the general rate of inflation in recent years — their elected representatives continue to allow builders to build nothing but classic high-cost suburban development.

The elected representatives do this because they don’t want to spend any more money than is absolutely necessary. If you’ve got 100 acres, you can zone it for apartments or townhouses at 5 units per acre, and wind up with 500 families living there, and possibly 1000 kids for the local school.

If you zone the same land for houses on 5-acre lots, not only do you have fewer roads to maintain, but you only have 20 families living there, which means only 40 or 50 kids to educate — or fewer, because they’re more likely to attend private schools than poorer kids. People who can afford those houses tend to burden the police less with knife-fights, too. You collect less in property taxes on the twenty five-acre lots than on the 500 1/5-acre lots, but the county’s expenditures are cut even more.

So the land gets zoned for five-acre lots in order to save money on the schools; and then what schools there are become a problem, since there’s no place for the teachers to live. The county is attempting to cherry-pick, to avoid marginal uses. The trouble is that the people making high-dollar uses of land — $500,000 houses, fancy office parks, giant malls, etc. — require some marginal uses of land to support them. The $500,000-house-dwellers need to be able to buy gas and Slurpees, and they need teachers for their kids; the office-park-workers need to be able to eat lunch and get their oil changed; and the mall needs somewhere for its workers to live. If you make all these supporting activities more or less illegal, the value of your high-value land-use goes down.

I may be making some inaccurate assumptions about my readership, but Prince William county is likely not a place you’d want to live. It is emphatically not a swank area. The traffic there is bad, and there’s nothing to do except go to the local megaplex to see Space Mutants IV, or go to a chain restaurant to get even fatter. It’s a very long way from being the worst place on earth, certainly, but there’s very little to distinguish it from any of dozens of other places nearby, or around the country.

Yet the average price of a single-family house in Prince William county is $258,000, and the average apartment there rents for $862 a month. By way of comparison, the average price of a single-family house in New York city is $203,000, and the average apartment there rents for about $750.

Now, those average New York prices span everything from the Upper East Side of Manhattan to the far reaches of the Bronx and Queens. And the average apartment in Prince William county is larger, newer, and in many respects nicer than the average apartment in New York.

But you’d expect that, because the average apartment in Prince William county costs 15% more than the one in New York. Why? Because, as distorted as the New York real-estate market is, the market in this undistinguished suburb of Washington is even more distorted, largely to save money on schools.

All of this is why I’m firmly of the opinion that the government should not be involved in the education of children. Aside from the perversity of putting the government in charge of teaching the next generation of voters, it distorts housing markets beyond recognition. Perfectly reasonable houses might be worth little because the school that you’ll be paying for if you move in stinks; lousy houses are overvalued because they happen to be within a given school district.

And this distortion is before one of the main goals of urban planning becomes minimizing government expenditures.

Eliminate the county’s obligation to educate children, and the county becomes interested in fostering the construction of the most-desirable housing possible. In some places, this will mean houses on five-acre lots; in others, high-rise apartments. The inhabitants could then send their kids to the school of their choice, paying directly — rather than through property taxes — for the privilege.

The problem of unequal school funding gets a lot of press; schools are funded through property taxes, so the people with the most-expensive houses tend to get the best schools. A lot of people get exercised about this, and it isn’t even the biggest problem that results from property-tax funding of schools.

Posted by tino at 13:59 26.09.03
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