Saturday, October 4, 2008

Reason #9. RIFT is biased against lower income folks

Wow, you say, that's a fairly bold assertion. Especially in light of the fact that a cap on commercial development is likely to result in even more opportunities to build housing, which should bring down the cost of housing, and therefore make life more affordable no? In short, No.

When we look at affordability, the cost of housing is just one part of a larger equation. Folks who purchased housing way out in Apple Valley in San Bernardino County or Santa Clarita under the rubric, "Drive till you qualify" learned that lesson fairly recently with the rise in gas prices. I implicitly learned that early in my own career, when I moved from New York City to Charlottesville, VA. You would think that my quality of life would have improved by that move, since housing in the latter is considerably cheaper. But in New York I didn't need a car, while in Charlottesville, I did. The savings in rent were more than eaten up in the expense of automobile ownership. With the cost of automobile ownership estimated to average $8,000/year (after taxes),* working families who don't need two cars, or even one, are simply better off then those who do. Those families can afford to have their children participate in after school activities because they don't need to take off work to schlep them to those events. Note that the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) views affordable housing,
"...within the context of neighborhood design, where pedestrian quality, the provision of public space, and walkable access to services [and jobs] become an essential part of the affordability equation. ...the emphasis is on mix rather than any one form of housing by itself. New Urbanism elevates the principle of urbanism, within which the quality of diversity is seen as essential."
So building affordable or work-force housing that is not intimately connected with jobs and services is simply not a very good strategy. Again you might argue, "Hey, Santa Monica already has plenty of jobs, and plenty of retail. What we don't have is adequate housing for the people who staff those jobs." All of this is true. We certainly need housing at all price points, and I would hope that housing grows at a faster rate than job growth specifically for that reason. At the same time, however, the most robust mix of jobs, services and housing is probably the best prescription to ensure an adequacy of car-reduced and car-free options for both residents and employers alike. That's a more equitable equation for lower income families.

So again, I'm not arguing for the status quo. The machine is broken, that's clear, but the tools required to fix it are are more varied and more precise in their nature, more like those of a surgeon, than those of say a rough carpenter installing plywood. In other words the building of "housing-only" areas strikes me as a really bad idea.

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