The Everyday Economist talks housing with the Everyday Elected Official

I guess it’s not giving away too much to say that when the job that pays the bills is finished for the day, my 2nd job is as an elected councilmember for a small suburban town in the Pacific Northwest. Believing as I do in the power of government, properly applied, to improve the lives of its citizens, I am frustrated at the sheer number of cows placed on the tracks ahead of the problem solving train. Housing is today’s topic, beloveds. Help me sort it out.

Last week I attended an affordable housing strategy workshop with other elected officials from the region, housing and social service providers, and developers. We were asked to rate 47 different potential strategies for increasing the number of affordable housing units (at all levels), within several different categories, such as creation and use of a housing fund, public/private partnership options, and land use incentives.

The discussion lasted for four hours. What struck me most about the options we were given to consider was that the groups asked to pay for providing housing almost always ended up being the taxpayer and/or homeowner.

For instance, a tax on developers who convert rental units to condos would be folded in to the condo purchase price. Loan guarantees for affordable housing projects would be backed by tax receipts. A voted-on bond issue or levy would hit taxpayers directly. And so on, and so on. An affordable housing tax on businesses who employ folks at less than a living wage, “the Walmart tax”, didn’t get much support, and understandably so since it would likely also hit small businesses that can’t afford to pay a living wage and stay in business.

The only group not asked to sacrifice in one way or another to provide affordable housing was the developers. They need to be “incented” to build low cost housing. We were told we needed to make it “worth their while” to do so. Expedited permitting, building fee permit waivers, expedited permit processing, using Federal or State grant programs to make the developer “whole”.

This seems an awful lot of effort to go through to tease developers so they will grace us with affordable housing. Perhaps I’m just naive, but it seems to me there has to be a better and more direct way to achieve this goal.

Thoughts, students?