The Last Time I Ever Saw An Affordable House Built

I was recently reading an article from a group of people I critique and comment on sometimes [1], and I was struck by the way in which the writer of the article tried to justify the expense of much new construction.  To be sure, a great deal of new construction is expensive and the regulations that govern new construction are often burdensome and expensive, but it was not that long ago that I regularly saw affordable construction where I grew up.  Admittedly, I cannot think of the last time I saw in the Portland area construction that was remotely affordable, as even a tiny house in Vancouver or Portland or the surrounding areas is likely to be at least in the neighborhood of 150-200k or more, but there was a time not too long ago when I saw construction that was not too expensive, and it would be nice to see those days again.

Let us go back to the times I lived in Central Florida.  During that time, I regularly saw reasonably priced real estate.  During my youth I saw a great deal of housing that was below $100,000, much of that with homestead exemptions that lowered the cost still further.  Even during the time when the POTUS was attempting to sell condos for $750,000 in downtown Tampa and someone was trying to sell a trailer along the Gulf Coast of Pinellas County for almost $1 million because of the location, it was still possible to find reasonably priced condominiums that only cost about $150,000 to own free and clear, even at the height of the pre-2008 Floridian property boom.  While I would not argue that a condo of that price is cheap, it is certainly affordable, especially if there are two-incomes involved in paying the mortgage for it.

To be sure, such conditions do not exist everywhere.  In San Francisco, for example, a family of four on a low six-figure income is considered below the poverty line.  This is a problem that has been a long time coming, for even as I was an undergraduate in Los Angeles, it was the practice of engineering firms to have their engineers live in lower cost areas and then commute to San Francisco because it was cheaper to do that for companies than to pay their employees high enough wages to afford to live there.  If that was true in the early 2000’s, it is an even worse situation now.  One wonders how a city can survive if one needs two six-figure incomes to live comfortably at present, a situation that is likely to only get worse as time goes on.  One can talk all one wants about the scarcity of land, but in the United States decent land is not terribly scarce at all, even if one takes into consideration the difficulty of driving and for cities to afford the expected amenities that come with development.  If cities build luxury housing because all housing comes with luxury prices, then they really need to seriously examine the zoning and other regulations they enforce that make it so expensive to build, not least because there are still plenty of areas where it is not so expensive to live.

We live in a world where everything has costs.  If you want the minimum wage to be $15 or more an hour, then it will be less expensive for companies to have kiosks to do those tasks that they would otherwise pay someone entry level wages to do, especially if there are demands to provide those employees with health care and other benefits.  If developers can only build single-family dwellings or massive apartment or condo complexes, or if mixed use development rules make it cheaper to have abandoned first floors to sell the residential space above, then we can see that there are going to be consequences in how cities and towns look like and how well they can be afforded.  It does not take someone of great genius to recognize this problem, and that those who harp the most about affordable housing and about the right sort of development are often the sort of people who want to try to regulate cheap housing into existence rather than getting out of the way as much as possible and letting cities organically develop as best as they are able with minimum and essential constraints on what that looks like.  For the more we try to make towns conform to our ideal of heaven on earth, the more hellish we are likely to make life for everyone else–a lesson we ought to do well but heed from all of the other utopian dreams that have blighted our world.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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