Affordable Housing and Complexity

My friend Eric invited me to come to an Isaiah meeting at Westwood Luthern church last night. He’s been working with the group for the past few years on a bunch of different issues, including affordable housing.

The meeting began with two introductory presentations about the problem of affordable housing. The message is pretty simple to state: the current median home price in Minnesota and the nation is significantly higher than the 30% of income that is the threshold for affordability. Anyone working in a service job - nurse, teacher, retail clerk, janitor, food services - makes, on average, less than needed to afford a home or, in some cases, an apartment rental. The only way for a contemporary family to continue to afford housing is for them to have dual incomes, and even then it’s not easy. No wonder so many people feel harried by work and the constant struggle to achieve that modern euphemism of work/life balance.

After the presentations we broke for 30-minutes of small-group discussion. I was at a table with a couple of city staffers, a woman who works for a local land trust, and two people from Isaiah.

I listened to the discussion and was struck by how it wondered in circles around the “complexity” of the problem. Someone would throw out a potential solution to the problem and then another person would say that it’s all more complicated than that. The person who proposed the solution would agree that it really is complicated and then move onto another thread in the discussion.

I tried to steer the question to ask what the barriers to action were. The responses were simple: people’s attitude, money, recalcitrant contractors, and lack of political will. Again the specter of “complexity” was raised.

As a sometimes complexity scholar I have to wonder whether this is really a true description of the problem or a subtle cop-out. To me the problem doesn’t seem that complex at all. The market fails to provide housing. Local governments can act to alleviate this by altering their building codes and requirements. We can all agree on the nature of the problem and the most likely solution. So what is the real problem here?

One suggestions was money. At a deeper level I agree, greed is always a problem in a market economy. But the requirements for affordable housing that set the model across the nation are not onerous. They’re only onerous to those who have been brainwashed to believe that all government action is bad. If you believe that the government can intervene for a collective benefit then the argument should be practically won.

So what stops us from acting?

I am a strong proponent of complexity. A lot of major problems and issues in the world are complex. But this isn’t one of them. It’s pretty simple and straightforward microeconomics. Give builders an incentive, through regulation, and they will build affordable housing. Builders are already regulated so this shouldn’t be hard. We just have to actually do it.