Las Vegas Sun

May 23, 2024


A capitalist solution to a social crisis

The housing crisis, spread across the United States, is most easily measured in terms of human cost. At the low end are families, working families, forced to go without a roof, to live in cars on the streets, and in tent cities or municipal shelters.

However, there are other costs, primarily to young people. Costs like getting married and living with parents or living in a group house long past the age when that is an adventure.

A significant cost of the housing crisis is labor mobility.

One of the great strengths of the American workforce has been its preparedness to relocate, unlike parts of Europe where the workers have demanded that the work come to them.

This mobility fed the growth of California. Today, it is feeding the growth of Texas, although housing stress — particularly in Austin, the dynamic capital — is beginning to be a problem.

Mobility is a feature that made America America: its restlessness, its sense of seeking the frontier and moving there.

According to Dowell Myers, professor of policy, planning and demography at the University of Southern California, whom I interviewed on the television program “White House Chronicle” in 1985, 21% of the population relocated annually; now it is down to 8%.

According to Myers and other experts, the housing shortage has existed since the Great Recession of 2008 to 2009. This has been multifaceted and includes a shortage of money available to lend to builders, labor shortages, supply chain disruptions and, particularly, local exclusionary laws.

To architects and developers I have spoken to, those laws are the biggest problem: the mostly smug, leafy suburbs don’t want new townhouses or apartments. That introduces underlying issues of class and race. Two of the most dreaded words in the suburbs are “affordable housing.”

According to Myers, the answer is to build “luxury” housing rather than designated low-income housing.

It is a view I have espoused for years. Build upscale housing that caters to the middle class, and as people move up, more housing will become available at the bottom. It is capitalism at its simplest: supply and demand at work. At present we have too much demand and not enough supply.

An extraordinary thing about the housing crisis that is crippling the nation and changing its social as well as its labor dynamics is why this isn’t a prominent issue in this presidential election year.

It is an issue that could bolster candidates because things at the federal level can be done. Here is a problem that affects all. Where are the political solutions coming from the top? Where are the political reporters asking the candidates, “What are you going to do about housing, a here-and-now crisis?”

Public housing comes pre-stigmatized. The answer is the market. It isn’t a free market because it is inhibited by the fortress-suburb mentality. Still, there is enough room for the market to accelerate to build more houses with just a little federal incentive.

Some of the most attractive homes in New England are in converted mills and factories. These grand structures have been turned into what Realtors call “residences.”

Using the word “residences” instead of “apartments” denotes something desirable. So be it: If it works, do it.

Much of the rehabilitation of the industrial properties in New England and nationwide has gone in tandem with tax incentives. In one case, these were enough for the developers to produce 250 apartments from one mill in Rhode Island. Up and down the country, abandoned industrial properties require little zoning hassle to be repurposed.

USC’s Myers, who says every kind of housing is needed, points out that building for those who can afford to buy works in another way: It inhibits gentrification and social upheaval as the poor are pushed out of their old neighborhoods, something which, by the way, has been very apparent in Washington.

The use of urban space is changing, shopping centers are failing, and office buildings are losing their luster, and that means housing opportunities.

Repurposing isn’t the only answer, and a lot of new housing is needed. Still, there is huge evidence that repurposing works from the factories of New England to the lofts of Manhattan — desirable housing has been created from the debris of the past.

Building anything anywhere isn’t a simple matter, but once the financial incentives are gotten right, things begin to move. It will take decades to fix the housing problem, but that should be accelerated now.

Llewellyn King is the executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS. He wrote this for