A simple definition, from the National Association of Realtors®

Inclusionary zoning is a land-use concept in which local ordinances require builders to include a certain amount of housing for low- and moderate-income households.

Donald Pittenger thinks it's a really bad idea:

Inclusionary zoning strikes me as being a below-the-belt way for governments to meet their housing goals without spending money, as they must for subsidized housing.

It also raises the price of the non-"affordable" units in developments and this seems to be a form of punishment for middle-upper income buyers who might have other good uses for the extra money they are paying for housing (and later property tax assessments based on the inflated sales prices).

Both of these have an element of truth, but I don't find either of them entirely convincing: all else being equal, I have no objection to governmental units having to spend less, and it's not like anyone is forcing those high-zoot buyers to live there in the first place — although one could argue that the potential presence of lower-income folks might serve as a deterrent to Jamison and Tabitha Bucksup, which would tend to lower the prices (and, by inference, the taxes) of the higher-dollar units. Not that I'd want to make that pitch to the Planning Committee.

Mr Pittenger, though, has another idea in the back of his mind:

People who need an automobile and can't afford a new car wind up buying a used car. Why can't the same logic apply to houses?

I have purchased 11 cars over the years, three of which were used. I don't like buying used cars (two of those three were troublesome), but I do it when necessary.

And I've lived in five different houses in my lifetime and all of them were "used." The only newly-built housing I ever occupied was an apartment in Albany, NY back in 1970-72. And no dwelling had what I'd call a decent view (though that apartment offered a close-and-personal vista of the flight path to the Albany airport, which could be a neat thing if you dug Mohawk Airlines' BAC 111 jets). Somehow I survived this deprivation with my self-esteem intact.

Actually, quite a lot of subsidized housing involves older buildings that are refurbished. And I think that the quality level of a newly refurbished house ought to been good enough for most people.

If you believe the horror stories these days, the quality level of a lot of new homes isn't good enough for "most people".

The real-estate market being something a bit lumpier than the idealized "level playing field," I'm not one to object strenuously to government action to smooth out some of the bumps. But there is a distinct and substantial advantage to subsidized housing in preference to inclusionary zoning: it enables more of the existing housing stock to be put back to work, instead of being left to disintegrate or to face the bulldozer.

About a year and a half ago, I wrote this:

Conventional wisdom holds that there are two kinds of residents: those who want to live at point X, and those who have no choice but to live at point X. It can probably be assumed, in the absence of de jure segregation, that the latter condition is mostly a function of economics; I could theoretically choose to live in, say, a spiffy new subdivision on the edge of town, but I couldn't possibly pony up the price of entry. At every price point, there is someone who can afford it, and someone else who can't. I imagine it wouldn't be difficult to find somebody who couldn't afford to live in my neighborhood.

And at the time, I quoted Howard Husock of the American Enterprise Institute, who writes:

Neighborhoods are not random collections of structures and people. They are roughly organized on the basis of the income and education levels of residents. This does not mean, of course, that everyone in a given neighborhood or census tract has the same income, only that income levels are grouped within a fairly narrow range. But the housing ladder is also a social system in which families strive to improve their economic position — to climb the ladder to a higher rung, or, at the least, to maintain their home (and hope their neighbors do the same) so they do not fall. There is no city in the nation (perhaps the world) in which neighborhoods are not stratified along income lines.

Then again, Mr Husock's piece was concerned more with rental properties, and I, as a long-time renter, could run the numbers myself:

Surely it has to be better to own a $30,000 house, however crummy, than to pay $400 a month in rent and own nothing. (And a quick search of Realtor.com shows that houses in the neighborhoods I visited [the day I wrote that piece] often sell for that price or less; they're not by any means the spiffiest houses in town, but the fact that they're still standing after 50 or 60 years attests to some sort of stamina.) In retrospect, I probably would have been better off buying one of these little boxes years ago and then trading up as my situation improved, and certainly I'm not the only person who's ever been in this position.

Of course, if you take a position against anything that sounds "proactive," the Usual Suspects will cry discrimination, because, well, that's what they do; in the best of all possible worlds, they hold, the demographics in Shidler/Wheeler and Val Verde are exactly the same. The fact that such a fantasyland bears no resemblance to anything they've ever seen is irrelevant.

As a practical matter, you literally can't build a $30,000 house anymore; the local Habitat for Humanity, which is as frugal as a builder can be, spends about twice that on new homes. If you want bells and whistles, you're going to get into six figures even in budget-minded developments. And let it be said up front that not everyone can afford $100,000 for a house. I probably can't. I don't think, however, that this entitles me to demand that the government order Ideal Homes to clear lots in Valencia, where prices start close to $200,000, and build the same sort of lower-priced houses they're already building in Del Creek or Wildflower.

For reference: Home Scene, a freebie given away by a local real-estate firm, reports that the average home price in the Oklahoma City metro is running a hair under $140,000; the median price — half are above, half below — is about $120,000.

One major reason to want to move out to the new houses in the 'burbs, of course, is to get away from central-city public-school systems, but that's a topic for some other time.

The Vent

  1 November 2005

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 Copyright © 2005 by Charles G. Hill