Thursday, July 16, 2015

Foster behaviors and values not expropriations

A rather interesting phenomenon. I looked at Who Will Pay the Political Price for Affordable Housing? by Thomas B. Edsall first thing this morning. At that point in time there were 312 comments.

Edsall lays out the basis for his essay in the first five paragraphs.
For generations, working- and middle-class opponents of anti-discrimination laws have argued that more affluent whites support such laws without having to bear any of the costs.

Now, the Democratic loyalty of better-off white liberals will be tested by two recent developments: the June 25 Supreme Court decision in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, Inc. and the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s issuance of a new rule on July 8, “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing.”

The court’s decision, which the Obama administration sought in an amicus brief, together with the HUD regulation, are major victories for civil rights advocates, who argue that moving poor minorities, especially young children, out of high-poverty neighborhoods can produce improvements in education, earnings and marriage stability.

If these two rulings survive further legal and legislative challenges, they will set in motion much tougher enforcement of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, and will require predominantly white communities to build significantly more low-income housing.

Such a development has potential political ramifications. It may drive some middle-income and other whites into the arms of the Republican Party.
He is primarily interested in the political ramifications. Fair enough. His essay is framed in the fairly typical chattering class terminology of race and to some very small degree, class. I am not quite sure it is his assumption but the miasma of the essay is that whites will object to the execution of these policies and court decisions because they do not like blacks.

What is interesting to me is that the commenters are far more nuanced and I think are focusing on the real issues in a way you rarely see in political discourse.

I see three separate issues related to these new policies and rulings. 1) Should the federal government have a role in deciding where people should live? 2) Under what legal construct is the federal government authorized to execute an uncompensated taking? and 3) Is this particular strategy likely to achieve its stated ends?

1) Should the federal government have a role in deciding where people should live?

The instinctive answer is, of course, no. Land of the free including freedom of assembly, i.e. choosing with whom you wish to affiliate either by activity or residence. There are all sorts of association rules and municipal regulations that might have some disparate impact, but the ideal is that the government only intervenes to right some wrong. There is certainly a long history of local governments attempting to use the coercive power of the government in order to allow intentional discrimination against racial, ethnic, and religious minorities as well as other groups such as orientation and class. If you write your building code to such stringent standards that every home costs a minimum of $500,000 then effectively you are precluding people of lesser means.

But those days of intentional discrimination are by and large long behind us. It is illegal and the punishments are severe for that sort of discrimination.

We are at this point mostly in the woods of disparate impact, a murky and dangerous territory where opinions outrun the facts.

There is also an issue of logical inconsistency here. If you grant the government the power of determining where people should live, you essentially make the government the effective discriminator. Every city has a bad part of town. In some cities, there are tides of gentrification of either white and/or educated and/or affluent people wanting to move into the cheap bad part of town. When that happens, it is not uncommon for the poor residents of the bad part of town to mobilize political support to stop their displacement. Town councils write ordinances and regulations to "protect" the existing residents. We don't usually put it in these terms but what the government is doing is preferring one group of citizens over another and attempting to stop some citizens (gentrifiers) from living where they want to live.

At the same time, under these new regulations, the same government is trying to force one group to live in other areas of town where they might or might not want to live and where they are not wanted (nobody wants something imposed on them).

We end up with the government essentially telling one group of people where they should not be allowed to live and telling another group where they do have to live. Doesn't that echo of apartheid in South Africa. It is of course being done with the very best of intentions, but we know where that road paved with good intentions leads.

I think ordinary citizens are quite right to be concerned about the scope of government that arbitrarily decides where people will live and under what circumstances.

2) Under what legal construct is the federal government authorized to execute an uncompensated taking?

The issue here is, it seems to me, one of communitarian takings. 5,000 people decide they want to live among one another and that they will tax themselves to the degree necessary to have tree lined streets, no trash, clean air and water, well-maintained public infrastructure, communal recreational facilities, and excellent schools. The tax burden is material but they individually and collectively deem it right and appropriate. The federal government, pursuing its own ends, now wants to bring in 1,000 low income individuals who will not be paying property taxes, income taxes, and minimal sales taxes.

If they are to maintain standards, the costs to the community of their established services will now have to increase 20% to accommodate the 20% increase in population. The federal government will not cover these costs. The consequence is that the existing community has had the dollar equivalent of a 20% increase in taxes taken from them or they will have to suffer a 20% decrease in the quality of their schools, road maintenance etc. This is not an issue of race or class or anything else. It is a federal taking without compensation. We do not accept that in general and yet, because this federal policy is dressed up in good intentions, we have historically turned a blind idea to these implications.

3) Is this particular strategy likely to achieve its stated ends?

No. Mostly because virtually all government policies fail to deliver their claimed benefits and also usually have excessive overruns and delays. But we don't have to rely on generic experience. See Behavioral public choice: The behavioral paradox of government policy by Ted Gayer and W. Kip Viscusi for issues attached to government making reliable policy choices likely to achieve the stated goals.
In this article we examine a wide range of behavioral failures, such as those linked to misperception of risks, unwarranted aversion to risk ambiguity, inordinate aversion to losses, and inconsistencies in the tradeoffs reflected in individual decisions. Although such shortcomings have been documented in the behavioral literature, they are also reflected in government policies, both because policymakers are also human and because public pressures incorporate these biases. The result is that government policies often institutionalize rather than overcome behavioral anomalies. This idea is the principal theme of Viscusi’s Rational Risk Policy, which documents a wide range of parallels between the systematic failures in risky private decisions and government risk policies. These institutional irrationalities pertain quite generally to government policies and are not restricted to regulations directly affecting consumer behavior. In this Article, we also find that the government often relies on command-and-control regulation, even when the insights of the behavioral literature counsel a more flexible regulatory approach.
For a less academic approach, take a look at American Murder Mystery by Hanna Rosin, an examination of the consequences of Memphis's antipoverty residential voucher program.
Memphis has always been associated with some amount of violence. But why has Elvis’s hometown turned into America’s new South Bronx? Barnes thinks he knows one big part of the answer, as does the city’s chief of police. A handful of local criminologists and social scientists think they can explain it, too. But it’s a dismal answer, one that city leaders have made clear they don’t want to hear. It’s an answer that offers up racial stereotypes to fearful whites in a city trying to move beyond racial tensions. Ultimately, it reaches beyond crime and implicates one of the most ambitious antipoverty programs of recent decades.


When his map was complete, a clear if strangely shaped pattern emerged: Wait a minute, he recalled thinking. I see this bunny rabbit coming up. People are going to accuse me of being on shrooms! The inner city, where crime used to be concentrated, was now clean. But everywhere else looked much worse: arrests had skyrocketed along two corridors north and west of the central city (the bunny rabbit’s ears) and along one in the southeast (the tail). Hot spots had proliferated since the mid-1990s, and little islands of crime had sprung up where none had existed before, dotting the map all around the city.


Janikowski might not have managed to pinpoint the cause of this pattern if he hadn’t been married to Phyllis Betts, a housing expert at the University of Memphis. Betts and Janikowski have two dogs, three cats, and no kids; they both tend to bring their work home with them. Betts had been evaluating the impact of one of the city government’s most ambitious initiatives: the demolition of the city’s public-housing projects, as part of a nationwide experiment to free the poor from the destructive effects of concentrated poverty. Memphis demolished its first project in 1997. The city gave former residents federal “Section8” rent-subsidy vouchers and encouraged them to move out to new neighborhoods. Two more waves of demolition followed over the next nine years, dispersing tens of thousands of poor people into the wider metro community.
Much of the current justification for distributing poverty is based on a recent Harvard study mentioned by Edsall. The problem with that is there are a lot of methodological criticisms and the study looks, as government studies often do, only at the benefits accruing to the recipients and none of the costs to those carrying the burden of implementation. Many things look pretty positive when you take into account only the benefits and not the costs.

Edsall does not touch much on these issues. But his commenters sure do. Take a look at the Reader's picks. A selection of the top comments.
Tom J. Berwyn, IL 22 hours ago
I owned a home in a mixed, mid-low income neighborhood. It was a nice experience mostly but we had a section 8 area with a lot of trouble. It was a constant worry. I'm not sure what the most compassionate posture should be. The crime is there, we just didn't want to be shot or robbed. Recognizing this quandry and expressing concern about it is not racism, and no one is going to scold me into believing that.

Todd Stuart key west,fl 22 hours ago
The government decides that people who can't afford to live in a neighborhood have a right to live there anyway. They require the town to build housing which may be totally out of character with the existing homes. The current residents who have worked hard to afford this neighbor aren't happy with this, I can't image why. They must all be racists.

john chicago 20 hours ago
I'm 65. I live in a very affluent North Shore Chicago suburb where the average home is over $1 million. There is zero affordable housing in my town because every square inch of property is already built on and because we're a beach community, the land itself is hyper expensive. We have very little crime, excellent schools, parks and recreational areas. It's a delightful place to live. I wish I could have grown up here, but my family didn't have the income to support that dream. A lifetime of hard work and some luck enabled us to be able to afford to live here. There are nine million people in Chicagoland and probably all of them would like to live here in my town. Life is not fair and never will be. I'd like to have a yacht to sail on Lake Michigan but I can't afford it. I'd like my home to be right on the lake shore, but I can't afford it. If you tried to build low income housing here, you'd have to tear down existent structures. Does anyone think the Feds have the right to arbitrarily pick which areas of my town should be torn down to build new affordable housing?

njw Maine 21 hours ago
As an individual working to provide affordable homeownership to low income folks in Maine's non-coastal, poorer region, I continue to find that HUD's concentration to have communities build complexes for the 'poor', almost always more rental housing, in white suburbs to be the wrong approach. Rather than subsidize developers and their investors with tax credits and building inappropriate structures in communities as described by some of the comments from Westchester County, we should be helping the poor afford their own homes and requiring that those homes will remain perpetually affordable, as under the classic community land trust model. Why should public and private money become a gain for a developer rather than remain in the public trust as perpetually affordable? And why should we build more 'projects' for the poor, to alienate them inside these new structures, clearly not the same as neighbors? Provide more vouchers so that poor children can attend better schools and help their parents with affordable homeownership, instilling pride of ownership and providing neighbors with new stakeholders.

Ben Chicago 20 hours ago
Funny how when people with money move into poor areas and make it nicer (gentrification), it's called evil by a lot of people.

But then forcing wealthier areas to become poorer with the associated rise in crime is called a good thing. I guess if some people can't afford to live in a low crime area, then we have to make sure no one can live in a low crime area?

Catering to the lowest common denominator isn't progress. It just slows progress down to match the very slowest people.

Henry Michigan 21 hours ago
As usual the true upper class will be exempted from this process; they have the money to move on a dime, own multiple houses, live abroad, live in deeply protected gated communities, hire private guards. Not so fortunate the middle class, squeezed between an increasing rapacious upper class / plutocracy and an often dysfunctional lower class. For example, I don't see the Obama children going to DC's public schools; no, they avoid all the middle class troubles.

Bohemienne USA 19 hours ago
I life in a fairly affluent & crime-free suburb -- town square surrounded by late 1800s storefronts turned into boutiques, neighborhoods of 1940s bungalows and 1950s colonials with a few 1920s mansions. A few of the small houses near me -- a neat, tidy and quiet neighborhood -- recently have gone Section 8.

What has been the result? Junky cars packing driveways, screeching domestic arguments right out in the street, ratty kiddie play equipment scattered all over the front lawns, kids playing in the street and not moving for traffic (despite a nice park literally half a block away), garbage cans left at curb (lying on side, mostly) all week long. Being awakened at 3 a.m. as a motorcycle roars up blaring "Sweet child o'mine" or hip-hop at top volume. Cigarette butts and empty pint liquor bottles appearing on neighbors' lawns. Cop cars idling nearby & flashing lights at all hours.

One of the men from these houses has taken to walking a large dog on my street and on Monday tossed his dog's feces into my trash can -- which had just minutes before been emptied for the week by the municipal garbage truck. Apparently I am supposed to be OK with some pit bull's waste festering in my personal garbage can for an entire week before the next pickup. He lives about six houses away across a side street but chose to sully my place instead.

Is it any wonder that otherwise liberal people don't want subsidized low-income transients in their neighborhood?

Ed Maryland 20 hours ago
I wish our liberal betters would leave us alone. I'm black, worked hard through school and am finally seeing the payoff. I have no interest in living next to Section 8 voucher holders. I grew up and went to school with kids from such a household. It's not a picnic. I can only assume that those that romanticize the urban poor must not have any intimate experience with them.

No matter, I will exercise my vote against any politician that forcibly places people that don't share proper values and pose a threat to the harmony of the community. Unlike the Democrats in Westchester, that includes candidates running for President.

Jordan Melbourne Fl. 20 hours ago
Apparently if you work hard, save and buy the suburban tract home of your dreams and speak one iota of negative when a 750 unit low income apartment complex is proposed next to you then you are a racist. I can't think of a single thing more polarizing in this country then the constant laying down of the race card on the table, talk about things that drive the middle class into the arms of the Republican party!

DRS New York, NY 21 hours ago
As a homeowner in Westchester County, I am vehemently opposed to these appalling requirements. I worked hard - damn hard - to buy my house and pay huge taxes for good schools. I deliberately chose to leave NYC to escape my children having to see poverty on a daily basis, and avoid having ill-prepared and disruptive children in class and now Obama is forcing me to pay to transplant these people next door? He hasn't seen what backlash can look like.

Mario Brooklyn 18 hours ago
I don't see why this issue is only presented in terms of race. In my small suburban neighborhood we're nearly all hispanic, college educated and middle to upper middle class incomes. If we were informed that low-cost housing was going to be built near our neighborhood in all likelihood we would react the same way as whites. And I imagine if whites were informed that trailer park whites were moving into the area they'd react the same way. This is less about race than it is about class.

Sharon B.E. San Francisco 20 hours ago
It's not race, it's behavior. (my lovely next door neighbors are black) You can't "house" people without a wholesome family background or education and expect a change in behavior. It's not the lumber and cement, it's the concentration of toxic human interaction that makes a "bad" neighborhood. The focus should be on going into the existing "housing", forming education social groups to teach people how to live successful lives. How to be parents, how to be spouses, how to be community members.
And NYTimes, can you stop making everything about being white or black and start talking about the choices people make?

Jed Godens Bridge NY 20 hours ago
First- I have lived in Northern Westchester for many years. Most of the area, due to the topography, is not suited for multi-family housing where you would need lines for water, electricity and sewage.
Second- I don't care, and neither do most people, if my neighbors are black, brown or yellow so long as we share values, manners, and standards. The accusations of racism are bunk.
The government should assist people in creating opportunities for themselves and their families, not give them something the rest of us have to earn.

Basic Human Being USA 19 hours ago
The desire to avoid living next door to sociopaths is hardly racist. Anyone of any color who embraces the middle class virtues of education, job stability and hard work is welcome. Those who do not should not receive subsidies from the rest of us so they can move.
So yes, Edsall is likely right that enforcement of these policies is likely to have some political fallout.

What I am taken with is the hunger for the rule of law and the shared recognition that this is clearly not a race issue and it isn't really a class issue. This is an issue of values and behaviors. We all want to live with people who share our own values.

The hidden implication is that the federal government, if it wants to remove disparities and wants to help people help themselves to a better life, should get out of the business of arbitrarily redistributing income from the productive to the unproductive and ought instead help the unproductive to learn to be productive starting with values and behaviors. Consideration for your neighbors, privacy, diligence, work ethic, etc.

Thats a policy I think could work and would be supported, though, philosophically there are still issues. Interesting times.

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