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A housing crisis discussion without much sense

By Lee Habeeb

I read with interest the article in the Oxford Eagle about the affordable housing crisis panel discussion in Oxford. The answer to every problem is always the same when academics like Ole Miss sociology professor James Thomas convene: more taxes. In this case, more taxes to subsidize housing for folks who can’t afford to live here.

It was equally interesting to see a new meme on the subject: “housing insecurity.” That’s the problem Professor Thomas and his cohorts seemed hell-bent on solving. The solution to “housing insecurity,” of course, is “housing security.”

If I’d been at the panel, I would have asked a few questions. Should we be in the business of creating “housing security” for some Oxonians, but not all?  For much of my working life, I was a few paychecks away from being booted out of my rented apartment, and then my first home. Was I in need of “housing security?” It sure felt like it. Shouldn’t all working people be entitled to it?

And why end there? Let’s throw in “transportation security,” “medical security” and “education security?” Why not “cell-phone security” and “broadband security,” too. I know a lot of families who’d line up for that program. They’d stop working tomorrow to qualify. Or earn less money. Whatever it takes.

I would have asked a few more questions: Why not get folks who can’t afford housing in Oxford to move further out of town, to Abbeville, let’s say. Land is cheaper there, and rents and housing, too. The average American commutes 25 minutes to work. What’s so awful about that?

When I was a kid, my family couldn’t afford to live in New York City. But no one believed we had a right to live on Park Avenue, let alone the upper West or East Side (unless you had a rent-controlled place – and then you did!).

My mom and dad instead rented an apartment on a teacher’s salary in a small town 30 minutes away in northern New Jersey, a place where real estate was cheaper. And life, too. My family was able to save money (my dad had an additional part-time job and my mom did too) to buy a home they could afford. Over time, more folks moved out our way, and the home appreciated. That’s about to happen on the outskirts of Oxford. If only we’ll let it.

The answer to my family’s early struggles wasn’t to force taxpayers to subsidize our geographic housing preferences. It was for us to learn how to make wise economic choices for ourselves. Delay gratification, work hard, save and create real life equity. As opposed to the redistributionist kind that professors on the panel prefer.

While I was up, I would have asked a few more questions: In creating this housing for folks who can’t afford to live here, who decides who qualifies? Who picks the winners and losers of the newly created Oxford housing lottery?

Many middle-class folks struggle to pay the bills here in Oxford. Is it fair to give a subsidy to those who can’t afford to live here, while those who live here and who pay for that subsidy – many of whom themselves barely get by – get nothing? How fair is that brand of fair housing?

I would have asked one last question: How do we help matters when we continue to raise taxes on the people of this city – because property taxes (which renters pay in higher rents) are regressive, and hurt poor and working-class people the hardest?

And one last question – I promise! What kind of incentives are we creating with this “housing security” for single moms? If she gets married, does she lose the housing? What behaviors are we incentivizing? And disincentivizing?

Academics may mean well when they try to solve our community problems, but I’ve watched well-intentioned progressive policies exacerbate many of the fundamental problems in our society, as more and more kids in America live in families without fathers. And we know there is no bigger single cause of poverty and insecurity of every kind than kids without two parents in the home.

Marriage is the world’s best social program. It doesn’t guarantee avoiding poverty, but it sure as hell comes close. Two paychecks and one roof are vastly superior to one paycheck and two rooves. It’s simple math.

It’s not kids fault when they grow up in risky circumstances, and there are many valiant single moms doing their best to make ends meet. My wife’s mom raised four girls without help from their father. They didn’t own a traditional home, but owned a nice double wide mobile home twenty minutes from the restaurant where my wife’s mom worked as a waitress on the Gulf Coast.

That mobile home was on the property of my wife’s grandmother. Grandma also served as a baby sitter and role model in my wife’s life – and their pooling of social capital was a great thing for all involved.

Sometimes my wife’s mom wasn’t certain how the light bill would be paid, but they always managed. Once they were old enough, the girls worked to help pay the bills. All four Hollis girls ended up finishing college – something my wife’s mom will proudly tell anyone who’ll listen. She lives with us now, our way of returning the favor for all of those years of sacrifice.

That kind of social capital can’t be underestimated, the kind we have around us. The lessons learned last a lifetime. As did the girl’s resilience and grit.

Government programs can actually destroy the social capital that helps people move from poverty to independence. Interdependence between and among extended family is a critical part of that journey. Regrettably, our own government gets in the way of that interdependence, incentivizing all kinds of behavior we would never think of incentivizing in our own families.

Any local discussion of “housing security” must include the entire community. Some of our people need help, for sure. Compassion is important, but when formulating public policy, so too is common sense. And fairness.

But following the lead of a few progressive academics to solve Oxford’s so-called housing crisis will end up making things more expensive, less fair, and do little to stop the cycle of poverty that begins with human choices. And far too little as it relates to educating our community about the consequences of those real-life choices.  And real-world ways to overcome them.