Further and Further Away

I’ve been thinking lately about what it takes to make a society work. Though on a political level, we can point to many examples where dysfunction reigns supreme, within the US, basic functions still are functioning at a high level. Much of the rest of the world wishes they had such well-functioning services, like fire crews, and drinkable water, and sewage, and trash pickup, and law enforcement. So we are doing something right at a basic level, even though the supervisory organizations which are supposed to function at an adult level are seemingly in an intractable downward spiral.

But. All of this depends upon the people performing these functions having a large enough salary to afford to live within a decent commute of their place of employment. . And more and more urban centers are now becoming impossible for essential workers to live without having to commute hours each way. Look at California. Whole swaths of real estate fail the test of whether someone living on a public employee’s salary could afford to live there. And any attempt at resolving this issue, is hammered down by those who don’t wish their property values to be brought down by allowing for housing density zoning changes. NIMBY can apply to many situations. This just happens to be one which stands out egregiously.

I live in an area with exactly the opposite problem. As with many formerly prosperous small cities, the capital environs in West Virginia are hemorrhaging people. We suffer from reduced property values due to the inexorable supply / demand conundrum. Prices are low since demand is low, and there is a glut of extremely low-value properties around here. To anyone out there reading: if you can work remotely, the property values in West Virginia allow for a great improvement in your quality of life, should you choose to move here.

I hear from my brother, who lives in the constantly growing Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex. His construction company is constantly building municipal buildings, whether they be schools, or fire stations, or police stations. But I’ll wager that it is becoming more difficult for anyone who works in one of the suburbs surrounding the core cities from being able to afford any sort of living within the suburb itself. Just looking at apartment listings in the area, rents are about $1400 per month for a one bedroom, and $2500-$3000 per month for a three bedroom. Using the standard guidance of spending no more than 30% of income for housing, it takes about $4700 per month to afford even a one-bedroom apartment. The larger apartments would require a $100,000 per year salary to make them affordable. I have not looked up wages for these types of jobs, but I doubt that they pay a wage that would allow someone to be employed by a suburban community, and enable someone to live there as well. There are two implications to this. One, sprawl is guaranteed as people keep going further away from the urban core in order to discover affordable housing. And second, your civic employees have no skin in the game. They are not emotionally invested in a community they do not live in.

So the American model is to continue this sprawl as long as an area’s population grows. It goes without saying that another effect is the replacement of affordable housing in the urban cores with market-rate gentrification. We seem addicted to our sprawl, and all of its other social ills.

This bifurcation in living conditions is continuing to grow. We have become a society divided by incomes, where you are either a high-wage earner who does not need to worry excessively about rents or mortgages, or a low-wage worker finding it necessary to travel further and further in order to afford living space. Acknowledging that this is an untenable situation is the first step to resolving it. Or else we will find ourselves no longer enjoying the services we’ve come to expect, since not enough people are willing to compromise their lives to work in places they cannot afford to live. What steps can we take to remedy this? A market-based solution would enable private investors to finance appropriately dense housing, which will necessitate overcoming the NIMBY bias. Or, we can subsidize a portion of housing for public employees, ensuring that those who benefit do not have to pay additional taxes on their subsidies. Or, we can continue to drift with the status quo, where more and more people live further and further away from their jobs, and urban sprawl just keeps on keeping on. But we must understand that to stay with the status quo is a conscious choice, and we bear the responsibility for any adverse consequences.