Higher Wages for Affordable Housing?

Across America, from New York City to Whitefish, the topic of affordable housing is big

By Diane Smith

Since when did affordable housing become a taxpayer problem and not an employer problem? After all, if employees were better compensated wouldn’t they also be able to afford pricier housing?

Across America, from New York City to Whitefish, the topic of affordable housing is big. But have you noticed how often the discussion gets shifted away from the business bottom line (employee compensation) to the taxpayers’ bottom line (i.e., housing/development subsidies)?

This isn’t a plug for legislating a minimum wage increase or ignoring the affordable housing problem. It is a reminder that we should all pay greater attention these days to whose pockets we’re lining.

Political and business leaders from big and small cities nationwide have recently acknowledged that historically “liberal” policies limiting density and height resulted in the unintended consequence of also limiting affordable housing. Ouch.

Far left New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote recently, “(B)ig cities … could comfortably hold quite a few more families than they do. The reason they don’t is that rules and regulations block construction.” Here in our own backyard, Whitefish City Councilor Andy Feury said, “We can throw study after study … at this (affordable housing) problem and we are going to end up at the same place … unless we as a community change our mindset and are open to having density.”

You know what else would help? Higher wages.

The mostly left-leaning Whitefish City Council, in an effort to help business owners avoid the hefty wage increases necessary to offset rising housing costs, is about to spend $60,000 of taxpayer money on an affordable housing study. But they’re good at shifting business burdens onto taxpayers. They’ve done it before.

The new Whitefish City Hall and parking garage is a good example. Whitefish’s downtown business owners had a problem – limited parking. Somehow the Whitefish City Council was persuaded that the lack of downtown parking was a “community” problem that should be solved with a taxpayer-funded garage.

Whitefish City Council denied repeated requests to put the $16 million structure up for a vote. So now, Whitefish’s downtown business owners get to reap the rewards of a taxpayer-funded parking garage that will be mostly used by tourists whose dollars support – you guessed it – downtown business owners! Perhaps then a few of these businesses might be willing to pony up sufficient wages for their employees so they can afford to live in Whitefish? Just saying.

I wholeheartedly agree that affordable housing is a worthy goal of communities. But maybe political leaders should spend more effort protecting ordinary taxpayers than subsidizing businessfolk. And, if Whitefish employers truly can’t afford to pay employees a living wage (as documented by hard data, which hopefully will be part of the $60,000 housing study), then let’s deal with that. But, before we heedlessly offload yet another mostly corporate problem onto the backs of overtaxed residents, shouldn’t we all get real clear on whose problem we’re actually solving?

Diane Smith is the founder and CEO of American Rural.

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