The Magic of Affordable Housing
I love the term “affordable housing.” It’s an expression freighted with elusive promise, — promise of prosperity, easy living, and political privilege. “Affordable housing” has become an incantation, vague and mysterious, the modern political equal of the alchemist’s “Abracadabra.”
“Affordable Housing” is something every politician can support without worrying about being on the wrong side of the issue. Who doesn’t want “affordable housing?” How could anyone be against “affordable housing?”
Builders have learned to say the magic words when they want to improve their own land or make a pile on a public parcel. To do so, they must play a grown-up game of “Simon Says.” Nobody moves ahead until he repeatedly says “affordable housing” and grants the local authorities a financial interest in the property.
This game differs from traditional graft only in the coin of the payoff. Instead of cash, owners transfer property rights to politicians in the form of political control. The politicos cash in when they decide which of their friends, relatives and cronies will live in the bargain priced housing or get a great job with the Housing Authority.
Webster defines the word “afford” in two ways, the first is “to bear without detriment.” By that definition there is plenty of affordable housing. I can afford to live where I do. Pretty much everyone I know lives somewhere they can afford to live. People, sensible creatures that we are, tend to live where we can afford to live. If we do not, we know we will eventually have to live somewhere else, like Ocala or the steps of Old City Hall, for instance. This first meaning is the one most voters and taxpayers understand when they hear “affordable housing.”
Unfortunately, the magic words blur our thinking. We hear them and think politics can magically reduce the cost of housing. Political influence in any market can only add to costs in that market. Political meddling cannot reduce the cost of land, labor, or building materials. It can only add the cost of paying the meddlers. Politics can, however, dramatically redistribute costs and so convince the winners of the magic of “affordable housing” while spreading the higher costs as thin as fairy dust among the losers who hardly notice the sting.
The second meaning of afford is “to provide or make available naturally or inevitably,” as the sun affords warmth to the earth. This is more like what politicians mean by “affordable housing.” They mean housing that they, our caring leaders, afford to the little people who so wisely support them in office. Recent events at Poinciana Plaza show how the affordable housing winners have come to believe the City affords them bargain housing naturally — magically, as warm, spring rains nourish the lilies of the field.
Having rejected my suggestion to sell the place and eliminate taxes for a few years, the Housing Authority now needs money to buy the Poinciana property from the Navy. Residents recently protested any increase in their below market rents. They claim the City could have had the property free. Therefore, for messing up the deal, the City “…should be digging into their coffers” to avoid any rent increases.
In an irony lost on the Poinciana residents, the City could have had the property free only by tossing them out. The present tenants are too prosperous to qualify for free Navy land. However, an ample supply of new and sufficiently poor tenants was uncertain. Besides, it would not be fair to punish the residents for their relative, though modest success. Thus, the tenants remain. But the City still has to pay for the land and listen to them whine.
Everyone agreed it would be unfair to hurl public housing residents into the merciless tumult of the Key West housing market. People used to the benevolent, if intrusive, confines of public housing would be easy prey for greedy landlords — property owners burdened with taxes, regulations, maintenance and land they must actually pay for. It would simply not be fair to expect public housing tenants to compete with those hard-bitten market renters who are either too unlucky or too proud to live in apartments supported by public charity.
On the other hand, suggesting the City “…should be digging into their coffers” to keep rents low shows a deep misunderstanding of the nature of those “coffers” and an unquestioning belief in magic on the part of public housing tenants. There are no wee people guarding a pot o’ gold in the basement of City Hall. The money in City coffers, with some minor exceptions, comes from taxes. People pay taxes to avoid trouble, not because they want to help with someone else’s rent. It’s like when you gave that little urchin two bucks to “watch your car” while you left it on a back street. You didn’t want to help the kid so much as you wanted to avoid smashed headlights.
Anyone can understand why it’s easier for public housing tenants to believe in magic than to admit they are the beneficiaries of a protection racket. But that doesn’t make leprechauns real.
With that in mind, I have an idea that would encourage honesty and understanding for all concerned in the “affordable housing” game and boost efficiency at the same time. It would cut out the financial friction involved in collecting the taxes that keep rents low at Poinciana. It would make it clear to everyone where the money comes from for affordable housing. It would also reward those who pull the gravy train by giving them at least something for their money.
Ever been to a rent party? In 1968 rent parties resolved my personal affordable housing crisis and worked well for years in the Boston area. I lived in Somerville, Massachusetts with my roommate, Ron Pydenkowski. We worked for minimum wage slaying mosquitoes in the boggy catch basins of suburban Bean Town.
The apartment was a humble, third floor walk-up featuring two bedrooms and enough cookware for us to each have our own pot of Cheerios and Naraganset beer every morning. For Ron and me the place was anything but “affordable.” Our combined earnings barely kept us in Cheerios and beer.
Did we complain? Did we apply for welfare? Did we whine to the Somerville city elders for “affordable housing?” We did not. Ron and I solved the affordable housing problem month after month with hellacious, well-attended rent parties at which no one died or even went to the hospital. And attendance at our rent parties was voluntary. Girls even got in free. Imagine what we can do here in Key West with compulsory rent parties.
Here’s how it could work. First, the Housing Authority raises rents to whatever is necessary to cover costs. Then, to pay the higher rent, each Poinciana unit gets a list of 50 regular Key West families who will be their personal guests at the monthly Poinciana Plaza Rent Party. Attendance by the guests won’t be compulsory, but the payment of a $20 fee will be. Every month, using some of the money for beer and pizza and maybe a DJ, residents of Poinciana throw a humungous rent party right there at the Plaza. They then use whatever cash is left over to pay their rent.
Everybody wins! Instead of getting nothing for chipping in for their neighbor’s rent, luckless locals trapped in the unfair Key West housing market will at least get some pizza and beer for helping the folks living at Poinciana Plaza.
The SWAT team could issue citations to those stingy pikers who fail to send in their twenty bucks. A good, hefty fine of $250 a day should be enough to get most guests in a rent party mood. Heck, just having the KWPD ninjas kick the door in should convince most people of what a good idea affordable housing is. The team could collect the $20 on the spot. We wouldn’t even need fines.
This is doable. Everybody likes a good party. Compulsory rent parties could be the answer to the whole affordable housing problem. Eventually every housing unit in Key West could be assigned enough guests for a monthly rent party. Before long, everyone in town would have a personal guest list of people chipping in for the rent. This could catch on nationally. We can all live rent-free and have a great time doing it. Affordable Housing at last!