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10 housing ethics questions as inventory tightens

By May 19, 2017 No Comments
10 housing ethics questions as inventory tightens

Let’s talk ethics. I don’t mean the Realtor Code of Ethics, although it’s a fine thing — and having held securities licenses (NASD Series 7 and others) I can testify that the Realtor Code is better than anything on Wall Street.

The housing ethics explored below are a series of questions about the consequences of a deepening shortage of housing in and near our urban areas, and even suburban towns.

Resort areas have wrestled with housing ethics for a long time, but mostly as a seasonal issue, and regarded the issue as more inconvenience than ethical.

Whether a ski resort or beach town, the housing shortage flows from a profound shortage of land but is seasonal. Housing is not hard to find in gorgeous spots in Maine in February, nor in Vail in May mud season.

But in-season, every resort struggles to provide housing for poorly paid seasonal workers. These places tend to have relatively few year-round residents who can’t afford to compete with in-season vacationers and retirees — local teachers, police, firefighters, nurses — but life is punishing for these few.

Resort areas have for decades tried company housing (as attractive as it sounds), subsidized “affordable” housing, local-employee favoritism, rent control and lotteries.

If not already where you are, all are coming soon. The U.S. is in the midst of an extraordinary demographic change: cities have forever concentrated population and demand, but something in technology is accelerating the process.

Some aspects of technology appear to flourish in urban critical mass — concentrations of talent, employers and universities feeding on each other, attracting others and magnifying economic development.

The same trend is magnifying and concentrating purchasing power for homes. “Drive until you qualify” is a concept as old as the auto, but land scarcity near urban areas has begun to defeat the practice — many people face impossible commutes.

Income inequality gets a lot of questionable ink, asserting economic effects not demonstrable. However, in housing the demonstration lies all around us.

Those on the lower scale of income are forced into ultra-commutes, or (for Americans) ultra-density, whole families doubling- and tripling-up.

Many people like to counter, “Look at Europe — they don’t have any trouble with density, and build wonderful transit systems.”

Yes, but Europe’s population stopped growing two decades ago, and it is a very compact place, easy for public transit. For the first time in America we feel the limits of our land supply, but we will forever be big and spread out.

The questions:

1. Do cities and towns have a moral obligation to provide housing for everyone who wants to live in them?
2. Do residents who bought homes in special places years ago — because they were special, now much more expensive — have the obligation to damage the quality of their lives to accommodate new residents — “damage” by increased density and congestion?
3. In our towns and cities, to what degree should we tax ourselves to provide better housing than new residents can afford?
4. If we embrace density, it means vertical housing. How high is up? To the sky?
5. If we embrace density, do we marginalize lower-income citizens? Inevitable or optional?
6. If we re-zone to mixed-use density, even low-rise, is it fair to displace existing citizens?
7. Do we base “affordability” on the income of single citizens, or should we encourage or force doubling-up in order to compete with two-income spousal or partner households?
8. To what degree should we tax those people and areas which will not use public transportation in order to provide it to the others?

To each of these questions I have one answer: I don’t know. But I’m going to have a lot more company wrestling with finding answers.

Lou Barnes is a mortgage broker based in Boulder, Colorado. He can be reached at lbarnes@pmglending.com.

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