Friday, June 24, 2011

Does it make sense to build "affordable" housing in Santa Monica?

Among the people I admire most in the urban research business is Marjorie Turner.  I was talking to her at a conference sometime within the last year, and she put a difficult question to me: shouldn't housng policy allow everyone who wants to live in Bethesda, Maryland the opportunity to do so?  (Bethesda is among Washington, D.C.'s most affluent suburbs).

I have been pondering this question for some time, and it was thrown into relief for me when I witnessed a person bragging about building affordable housing units at $650,000 a pop in Santa Monica.  The presentation brought me around to the view that it is not society's responsibility to assure that everyone gets to live anywhere they like, just as it is not society's responsibity to buy everyone a Mercedes Benz (a night on the town every now and then might be something else).

Every household should have the opportunity to live in a clean, safe community with a decent school.  For this reason, expanding the Section 8 housing vouchers program, which allows low income households to rent market rate housing while paying no more than 30 percent of income, would make a lot of sense.  Given the fiscal realities of the moment, a sensible source for funding an expansion would be the Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program--a program that funds $650,000 properties in Santa Monica.

The median price of a house in Los Angeles County is around $275,000.  The median neighborhood in LA County is a fine neighborhood.  So one could put someone in a decent house and a decent neighborhood and still have $375,000 left over relative to Santa Monica.  That $375k could go toward better schools, more transportation options--or more housing! 

Do I wish everyone who wanted to live in Santa Monica could do so?  Sure.  I also wish everyone who wanted to take a vacation to Paris could take a vacation to Paris.  But when resoureces are scarce and getting scarcer, it is important to use them as effectively as possible.

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