Tenant-Rights Activists, Meet the Housing Shortage

Source: Joint Center for Housing Studies

The debate over tenant evictions is gaining traction now that the Virginia Housing Commission has taken up the issue. Two concrete proposals were put before the Commission during a Tuesday hearing. One would extend the time from five days to two weeks before rent is declared to be late. A second would give tenants more time to pay late rent before they are evicted.

Advocates for tenants rights and landlords differed over the wisdom of these proposals, and discussion bogged down when it became evident that there was insufficient data to determine what impact the proposals would have, reports the Daily Press.

Apparently, a critical question was never asked — why are rents rising and making housing so unaffordable for the poor and near poor?

Hopefully, members of the Virginia Housing Commission will pay heed to a new report issued by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, which illuminates how supply and demand are driving up housing prices and making rent increasingly unaffordable for lower-income Americans across the country. While the housing crisis is most acute on the West Coast and in the Northeast, the problem is getting worse almost everywhere, including Virginia.

As can be seen (if you squint) in the map above, the ratio of housing prices to incomes in the Hampton Roads, Richmond, Lynchburg, Roanoke, Blacksburg and Bristol metropolitan areas is between 3.0 and 3.9 — less oppressive than in many other metros. But in the Washington (Northern Virginia), Winchester, Charlottesville, and Staunton MSAs, the ratio is between 4.0 and 4.9 — on the high side.

Digging deeper, the Harvard study shows that the percentage of renting households experience a significant “cost burden.” Virginia metros aren’t the worst in the country by this measure, but they’re far from the best, as can be eyeballed below.


The root cause of unaffordability is that home building is not keeping up with population growth. Given widespread zoning barriers to new construction, developers focus their efforts on projects with the highest profit margins — housing that can be sold for higher prices to higher-income households. But the problem runs even deeper. Most localities have zoned entire categories of affordable housing out of existence. Single Room Occupancy buildings are outlawed almost everywhere. Boarding houses are illegal. Granny flats and garage apartments are discouraged in many localities. It is exceedingly difficult to get permission to build new trailer parks. Middle-class voters don’t want poor people living near them, and they wield the power of the state to protect their property values.

Tenant-rights activists are targeting the wrong problem. If they make it more difficult for landlords to collect their rent, landlords will convert their rental properties to more profitable uses — thus aggravating the housing shortage for the poor. Activists moved by the plight of the poor need to stop attacking symptoms and address the root problem: zoning restrictions that cause the housing shortage. Otherwise, they’re really helping no one.

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6 responses to “Tenant-Rights Activists, Meet the Housing Shortage

  1. The unfortunate truth is that there is no viable solution to this problem absent cultural change, education reform, and stricter enforcement of landlord tenant laws in projects. This has been the reality for a least the past 40 years – loosening up eviction and occupancy laws typically results in unfairly punishing both landlords and law abiding tenants, creating unlivable hell hole housing over time, as properties are abandoned by all (owners and tenants alike) but the most desperate, and socially dysfunctional.

    There are experts with long and successful track records in bringing affordable housing back into livable, healthy places. Local authorities must find, work with, and support these experts. Do things like finding ways to attract police officer tenants who park cruisers in front of their apartments at night. And bringing in after school teaching for kids and life style training for parents. Building and maintaining good habits and discipline is key.

  2. Is this a chronic/widespread Universal problem or is it a problem in some / most places but there are others that do it “right”.

    If it is the former, I’d be hard to be convinced that everywhere – the codes are set against affordable housing.

    In our travels out west – we are seeing a lot of very diverse housing… and a lot less cookie-cutter subdivisions…. There seems to be housing for the lower end folks to me. In Lake Havasu City at the moment – and it’s an interesting place. Looks for all the world like a kind of a “beach” town – except the “beach” is the beautiful blue Colorado River! Lots of different style/size of housing… No clue what the numbers are but it’s clearly a tourist town on a river – surrounded by desert!

    • Ask the people serving you lunch where they actually live. Not in sight of the river, I betcha…..

    • Ask your local policeman or fireman, your kid’s school teacher, or the nurse in the local hospital, or the sales lady in the shopping mall, or the ‘maitre de’ at your restaurant (let alone the waiter!).

  3. Dear Jim,

    Stopping, or at least severely reducing, immigration would help correct this problem. High immigration super-charges, and artificially so, demand for housing, which is one of the reasons why elites like it — they make more money “grinding the faces of the poor.”

    Slaveholders would sometimes try to limit the inflow of slaves, such as in colonial Virginia because too many slaves reduced the price of each individual slave. In a “free-labor” economy, it is to the advantage of elites to seek an ever-higher number of wage-earning immigrants since the greater supply REDUCES, or at least keeps in check, their individual wage-price while INCREASING the price of the goods and services that immigrants have to buy or rent to survive, due to increased competition, and more money flows to elites in the form of rents, mortgages, goods, and services. “Follow the money.”

    Sincerely,

    Andrew

  4. A number of Virginia localities have zoning codes that authorize SRO housing in limited locations (generally zoned commercial) and under various restrictions. Fairfax County looked at this issue a number of years ago and in typical fashion crafted an ordinance that would have allowed SRO housing in just about every zoning classification smaller than 5 acre lots. Staff wanted flexibility.

    What it got was a resident uproar around the county and multiple hostile supervisors. People properly feared someone dividing SFH into boarding houses. SRO housing needs to be in locations on or near bus transit that runs from early to late, places to shop for basic necessities, some open space for recreation and, of course, parking for those who have cars. And the County needs to enforce the Single Occupancy in SRO. Nothing has happened. The supervisors are fearful of a another big and noisy mess.

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