I spent yesterday working at a Habitat for Humanity project. It was fun; I hadn’t done contruction work of any sort (beyond the odd bit of inept homeowner handimannery) in over twenty years.
Most of the day was wrapped up in building things (and I did finally get the whole “hanging drywall” thing straight, thank goodness).
But the folks at Habitat – a non-profit – did carve out a bit of the day for “education”. Over lunch hour, we heard a bit about the “affordable housing” mission. We also learned that Habitat houses – always built to the absolute latest in current safety codes, and they are doozies – take a lot of money to build, above and beyond all the donated labor (from three Twin Cities corporations at our site yesterday, totalling around thirty people, some of whom knew what they were doing).
Naturally, my mind wandered a bit.
I remebered a lecture I attended, starring former Saint Paul mayor Jim Scheibel, the fellow who served the term before Norm Coleman was elected. He’d been a dismal, malaise-prone mayor – but he had impeccable liberal credentials, so after he left office he went to work for one “affordable housing” group or another. In the lecture, he stated his goal; that everyone in Saint Paul (and, naturally, elsewhere) have safe, attractive, up-to-code housing, convenient to mass transit and the amenities of city life, for less than 30-odd percent of their income.
I asked him where the money would come from for that vision.
I don’t think anyone needs me to tell them the answer, do they?
In pondering this, I thought back to the house we were living in when both of my kids were born (although we left when Zam was three months old). It was drafty; the walls were made (it seemed) out of cardboard. The carpet was dismal, the kitchen ancient, the windows leaky, the basement pungent. Mice roamed the place like the buffalo herds in Dances with Wolves.
But it was a three-bedroom house for $600, which at that time was about the ragged edge of what we could afford without government assistance (remember that last qualifier). It was a dingy roof and four drafty walls and, most important of all, we could manage it on what we earned back then. It was what you’d call a “fixer-upper” (and, indeed, someone bought the house from the landlord a few years back, and fixed it up; it looks nice today). And when the opportunity came to find something better, we worked our butts off to make it happen.
And that was a very good thing.
I thought, as I looked around the brand-new house taking shape in Frogtown, that this would be a much better way to be poor! Of course, Habitat for Humanity gets about 500 applications a year; between new builds and renovations, they put about 50 units a year into commission.
Where does everyone else go?
Until recently, they rented cheap houses; plain asphalt-sided frame houses in Frogtown; old railroad houses with three feet of clearance between buildings in the North End; dilapidated, past-their-prime but livable Edwardians up on Dayton’s Bluff.
But the mortgage craze of the past ten years took a lot of those places off the rental market; the popping of the bubble has left 2,000 of them vacant in Saint Paul, with more coming every day.
As I noted in my “Saint Paul Land Grab” series (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, and more to come), The City of Saint Paul is requiring all rgistered vacant homes to be brought up to current building codes before issuing them a Certificate of Occupancy, which will, depending on who you ask, revitalize the city with block upon block of safe, modernized, renovated homes (that was Councilman Bostrom and Councilwoman Lantry’s tack on the issue), or create neighborhoods strewn full of vacant lots, all ready for the city to seize for one project or another (largely to house the vast numbers of people who won’t be able to afford to live in Saint Paul because the cheap housing is gone). Until these properties’ owners bring them up to current code – meaning $50,000-$120,000 work for a house that might be worth $20,000, counting the land, today – they’re off the market.
No crappy homes equal no cheap places to live. What are the options for the poor if there are no cheap places to live?
Liberal governments have long declared war against things that are crappy; crappy jobs, crappy houses, crappy apartments. “Living Wage” ordinances and minimum wage hikes decrease the supply of entry-level and subsistence jobs – meaning people can’t enter the market or subsist. Have you seen the teenage unemployment rate lately?
“Rent Control”, like New York’s infamous rent caps, dry up the supply of rental housing (which is why even twenty years ago it was impossible to find an inexpensive apartment in Manhattan even as huge swathes of the city were covered in slums). Other cities that try to artificially spiff up the market – San Francisco, Portland – have similar results.
If the Saint Paul City Council’s latest bit of economic jiggerypokery continues as I predict, it’ll soon be impossible to get an “affordable” house in Saint Paul. Without government assistance, anyway.
There is value to crappy things; jobs, houses, whatever. They’re a place to start. They’re a place to fall back to. They’re something to fix, or to strive to get out of.
And when crappy jobs, houses and apartments are outlawed – what will be the alternatives?