Category Archives: Housing

Market-Based Social Justice: Roll Back Zoning Restrictions on Housing Supply

Source: StatChat blog

Unaffordable housing is a problem for more Virginians today than it was during the 2000s housing bubble. Median rent has increased at three times the rate of incomes since the end of the recession, says Hamilton Lombard with the Demographics Research Group at UVa on the StatChat blog.

Among Virginians earning between $35,000 and $75,000 (the second from bottom income quartile), the share of income they spend on rent above the HUD-recommended limit of 30% reached 41% last year, nearly double pre-recession levels. The share of 18- to 34-year-old adults living with parents  surpassed 45% last year.

In Lombard’s analysis, the problem can be traced to an imbalance in supply and demand. To house its growing population, Virginia needs to build more than 40,000 new homes each year. As can be seen in the chart below, home builders have been erecting around 30,000 a year.

When new homes are built, they tend to be geared to higher-income households because those houses have the highest profit margins. In a properly functioning housing marketplace, however, as housing stock ages, it depreciates in relative value and becomes affordable to households lower in the income spectrum. In a process that economists refer to as “filtering,” aging houses continually replenish the supply of lower-cost dwellings. A higher rate of new home construction accelerates the filtering process. However, writes Lombard:

In Virginia, where fewer new homes are being built, census data shows that many of Virginia’s older homes are not depreciating in relative value as quickly as in past decades (particularly in Northern Virginia), indicating that the filtering process has slowed. This lines up with [the] analysis that found filtering is typically slower in regions with rapid home price increases and low rates of new home construction. Rising home prices and a limited supply of new homes often encourages investors and home buyers to demolish or renovate older homes that might otherwise have become low income housing.

The slowdown in new construction is at the root of Virginia’s affordable housing crisis, which contributes to ancillary problems such as the rise in homelessness and the increase in the number of evictions. If we want to solve these “downstream” problems, we need to address the source. Why has home building slowed down? I would argue that home builders would eagerly meet the demand for new housing if only they could get the required zoning permissions.

For decades it was relatively easy to get permission to build low-density cul-de-sac subdivisions on the urban fringe, but housing preferences have shifted decisively toward walkable urbanism closer to the urban core. Re-developing real estate at higher density in established areas runs into intense neighborhood resistance, which throttles the supply of new housing projects. Meanwhile, zoning policy has all but exterminated affordable-housing options such as boarding houses, single-room-occupancy housing, granny flats, garage apartments, and construction of new trailer parks.

Bacon’s bottom line: Parents, if you want to get your 24-year-old kid out of the house, support the rollback of zoning restrictions! Even if developers want to build luxury condos, they’re still contributing to affordable housing simply by increasing the housing supply. Market-driven development will even advance social justice by easing evictions and homelessness!

“Government Failure” in the Housing Market

Something is seriously out of whack here. The Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority (RRHA) has a vision — a commendable one, I might add — of demolishing the city’s six public housing projects to end concentrated pockets of poverty, crime, substance abuse and social dysfunction. But it turns out that the price of developing new mixed-income apartments runs around $250,000 per unit.

The RHHA has concluded that it would be significantly cheaper to renovate the existing public housing stock at the cost of roughly $50,000 to $60,000 per unit, reports the Richmond Free Press. New construction would take about 30 years to replace the 3,300 public housing units. Renovations would cut the time to 10 to 15 years. De-concentrating poverty, it appears, is no easy task.

But how can it cost $250,000 to build a new public housing apartment unit? At right is a townhouse on the market for $250,000. It has 2,349 square feet with the following features: two and a half bathrooms; a one-car garage, and a master suite with huge walk-in closet and en-suite bath with jetted tub, shower and double vanity. It is located within 10 minutes of downtown, Carytown, VCU, and James River trails and parks.

If townhouse living isn’t your style, then there are numerous single-family dwellings in suburban neighborhoods. For example, the house at left is also on the market for $250,000. It has 1,900 square feet, two-and-a-half baths, a fenced backyard, a two-car garage, and “a glamour bath with Whirlpool” tub.

How big are the RRHA’s new public housing units? What amenities do they have? Was RRHA proposing to place poor people into units normally affordable by the middle-class as part of its proposed “mixed-income” projects — in effect vaulting low-income public-housing residents into vastly improved housing conditions? Did it run up costs by ensnaring the projects in bureaucratic red tape? Or is there some other explanation?

The justification for “public” housing is that government can address “market failure” in the housing market by providing shelter for lower-income Americans at a lower cost than private industry can. Clearly, there is no market failure in Richmond’s middle-class housing market. The failure more likely is a regulatory one in which local governments have zoned affordable housing categories — boarding houses, Single Room Occupancy rooms with shared amenities, garage apartments, granny flats, trailers, and converted cargo containers — out of existence.

Still, it astonishes me that the best RRHA can do is $250,000 in new construction or $50,000 for renovated units. What’s the opposite of “market failure”? Government failure? That, it appears, is what we’re dealing with here. Pity the poor who find themselves wards of the state.

Would an Eviction-Diversion Program Help or Hurt?

Renters-rights defenders and landlord advocates may be reaching common ground on how to reduce the rate of evictions in Richmond: Create an eviction diversion program. Reports Ned Oliver in the inaugural edition of the Virginia Mercury:

Planning is still in its early stages, said [Martin Wegbreit, director of litigation at the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society], but it would likely be modeled on similar efforts in other states, like Michigan, where Kalamazoo County established a program in 2007 as part of an initiative to reduce homelessness. In the Richmond area, more than 30 percent of homeless residents surveyed last year said they had been served with an eviction lawsuit, according to a recent survey by Homeward, a nonprofit that coordinates services for homeless people. …

The one-time program is geared toward low-income families and individuals who can afford their rent but fell behind after an unexpected financial emergency such as a car crash or medical problem. To qualify, they must demonstrate that they are no more than three months behind in rent and show that they will be able to afford their rent once the assistance ends.

Renters-rights proponents like the idea because it reduces the number of renters evicted from their apartments. The program in Kalamazoo assisted 412 households last year, providing $138,000 in rental assistance, an average of $300 to $350 per family.

Landlords like the idea because it provides funding to ensure that they get paid rent on time.

A big question, unaddressed in the article, is where money would come from for an eviction diversion program. NAlso, n one pretends that such a program would settle all the issues between renters and landlords.

Bacon’s bottom line: The eviction-reduction movement is no more than a palliative for underlying social and economic problems: (1) the tightening shortage of affordable housing in the Richmond region, (2) the inability of poor people to find and sustain living-wage employment, and (3) the inability of some people to manage their personal finances responsibly. Until we address the underlying issues, the problem of evictions will always be with us.

Still, I’m a big believer in conducting small-scale experiments, which, if successful, can be replicated and scaled, and, if unsuccessful, can be shut down. The key in an eviction-diversion program is not to measure the number of families assisted but to measure the number of evictions. If a program creates a moral hazard in which renters, knowing that assistance is available, become more lax about husbanding their money, it would be counterproductive. If experience shows that moral hazard turns out not to be an issue, and if the number of evictions demonstrably decline, then the program could prove its worth.

Use the Tenant’s Money to Cure the Tenant’s Rent Shortfall

by Martin Wegbreit

Recently, Virginia drew national attention for reportedly high eviction rates, especially in central Virginia and Hampton Roads. This has inspired many efforts to address the issue. These include a Campaign to Reduce Evictions, an evictions workgroup at the Virginia Housing Commission, and a possible Eviction Diversion Program in Richmond and elsewhere. These initiatives may result in changes that decrease the number of evictions and benefit both tenants and landlords.

One partial solution requires no change at all: Use the tenant’s money to cure the tenant’s rent shortfall. The Sunday April 8, 2018, New York Times article about evictions reported that the median amount owed in a non-payment of rent eviction in Richmond was $686. By contrast, a Virginia landlord may hold a security deposit of up to two months’ rent. With an average monthly rent in Richmond of $1,269, a typical landlord may hold around $2,000 of the tenant’s money.

And the security deposit is the tenant’s money. It is not the landlord’s money. The landlord is a fiduciary, or a trustee, holding the tenant’s money and using it only for a permissible purpose.

In most cases, the tenant’s security deposit is not an issue until the tenant has moved and been gone for 45 days. During that time, the landlord either must refund the security deposit or provide a written accounting for how the funds were used, or some combination of the two.

A Virginia landlord also may use the security deposit during the tenancy for any permissible purpose. This includes payment of rent owed. The law, part of Code of Virginia §55-248.15:1, is clear: “The landlord shall notify the tenant in writing of any deductions provided by this subsection to be made from the tenant’s security deposit during the course of the tenancy. Such notification shall be made within 30 days of the date of the determination of the deduction and shall itemize the reasons.”

In 38 years of legal aid practice in Virginia, I never have seen or heard of a landlord deducting a rent shortfall from the security deposit, and seeking a repayment plan to replenish the funds, rather than undergo the time and expense of filing a non-payment of rent eviction. Unquestionably, tenants who intentionally or habitually fail to pay their rent deserve an eviction lawsuit, a judgment of possession, and eviction by the sheriff. But true hardship cases ought to be treated more humanely. Use the tenant’s money to cure the tenant’s rent shortfall.

A tenant’s non-payment of rent should not be subject to a “one size fits all” solution of an eviction lawsuit. Landlords have in their own hands a partial solution to lower eviction rates. Treat tenants like customers, not like a commodity to be disposed of whenever a problem arises.

Martin Wegbreit is director of litigation for the Virginia Legal Aid Society.

A Partial Defense of RRHA Eviction Policies

Creighton Court, a public housing project run by the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority. Photo credit: Richmond Magazine.

I never thought I’d find myself defending the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority (RRHA), which I criticized last year for running up a $150 million maintenance backlog on its 4,000 public housing units. But the wheel of public policy debate turns in unexpected ways. Now, RRHA is being dinged for its high eviction rates.

Here’s the background courtesy of the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

Evictions in Virginia drew national attention earlier this year after a New York Times report on a nationwide study done by Princeton University’s Eviction Lab showing Richmond as having the second-highest eviction rate in the country, with Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk and Chesapeake also in the top 10.

How the agency chooses to pursue those who do not pay rent on time was the subject of a Richmond Times-Dispatch analysis, which determined no landlord in Virginia threatened to kick out more of their tenants last year than RRHA.

Needless to say, many if not most residents of Richmond’s public housing projects are living on the edge. They’re the poorest of the poor, subsisting on minimum wage jobs if they work at all. Sure, some may qualify for food stamps, earned income tax credits, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, energy assistance, free cell phones, housing subsidies, legal aid, and other government-welfare benefits, not to mention soup kitchens, toys for tots, private-school scholarships, and a panoply of charitable programs, but their lives tend to be chaotic and they live paycheck to paycheck. All it takes is one financial setback, and they can’t find money for rent.

As the housing provider of last resort, RRHA arguably has the least credit-worthy customer base of any landlord in Virginia. I’m not the least bit surprised that it has the highest eviction rate.

Let’s ask ourselves, what would happen if RRHA adopted practices, either voluntarily or under compulsion of state law, to curtail evictions by means advocated by tenant-rights groups? What if RRHA extended the length of time for tenants to come up with the cash?

First, would late payments and eviction rates noticeably decline, or would tenants just adjust expectations push up against the new limits like they pushed up against the old?

Second, would RRHA suffer a diminution of cash flow?

And, third, if it did, what would be the consequences? Would RRHA have less money to pay for desperately-needed repairs? Put another way, to what extent would showing clemency to those who fail to pay their rent on time impact negatively those who do?

My problem with social justice warriors is not that they have compassion for poor people (some of whom deserve compassion and some of whom don’t), but that they propose remedies without taking into account the unintended consequences. No one knows the answers to the questions raised here. Some unintended consequences are entirely foreseeable, but no one seems to care.

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.

Proceed Cautiously with Eviction Reforms

Carlos Lopez, a Los Angeles landscaper, inherited a house and let it out to rent. When the original tenant went to jail, a woman Lopez had never seen before was occupying the premises and refusing to pay any rent. He engaged an attorney to evict her. The squatter lawyered up, too, obtaining free legal services from a state-funded nonprofit whose mission is to reduce evictions. Lopez soon discovered that he couldn’t afford to push the lawsuit, which would cost anywhere between $8,000 and $20,000 to win.

“He was dealing from a nearly powerless position,” writes his attorney, Rikka Fountain, in the Wall Street Journal. “Tenants with attorneys always demand discovery, depositions and a jury. This drives landlords’ legal costs up from the typical flat fee of several hundred dollars to tens of thousands.”

Renting wasn’t worth the headaches, Lopez concluded. He hopes to sell the house.

California defendants represented by attorneys routinely seek several months of free residence, a waiver of unpaid rent, a sealed judgment, and a reference letter from the landlord so future landlords won’t know the tenant’s history. (The defendant in the Lopez case had been evicted from three other houses previously.) As if that weren’t enough, San Franciscans will vote next week on a proposition that will give all eviction defendants the right to a city-funded attorney regardless of income or reason for eviction.

As the social justice movement mobilizes to combat a purported eviction “crisis” here in Virginia, it’s worth bearing in mind what can happen when tenant rights take excessive precedence over landlord rights. Citing a recent study that showed that five Virginia cities ranking among the Top 10 nationally for eviction rates, the Virginia Poverty Law Center has launched a Campaign to Reduce Evictions (CARE). It is not yet clear what kind of remedies CARE will seek but, as a leader in tenant rights, California could serve as a role model.

As it happens, California couples the nation’s strongest anti-eviction protections with the nation’s highest rates of homelessness. Social justice warriors cite the ever-growing ranks of homeless people as justification for laws protecting the poor from being tossed from their homes. At the same time, punishing landlords reduces the supply of rental housing. There will be no lack of would-be homeowners in Los Angeles willing to purchase Carlos Lopez’s house — like most California cities, Los Angeles suffers from a dearth of new housing construction. When the squatter is eventually bought off and evicted, the house most likely will be taken off the rental market. As Lopez’s experience is replicated thousands of times, landlord-hostile laws reduce the supply of rental housing and push homelessness even higher.

Anti-eviction laws are one more example of the unintended consequences of the social justice movement. SJWs seize upon genuine misfortunes — let’s face it, many people live paycheck to paycheck, and a single financial setback can make them miss their rent payment — to justify laws and practices that apply to everyone. Trouble is, just as there are bad landlords, there are bad tenants who game the system.

Virginia law strikes a balance between tenant rights and landlord rights. RentCafe rated the 50 states for renter-friendly versus landlord-friendly policies based on “10 common aspects of the landlord-tenant relationship, which include security deposits, rent increases, the warranty of habitability and eviction notices.” Far from ranking as one of the most landlord friendly states in the U.S., as one might expect from its pro-business climate, Virginia is in the middle. On a 1 to 100 scale, with 1 being landlord friendly and 100 being tenant friendly, Virginia is rated 45.

By all means, let’s review the laws on the books to make sure they still make sense. But let’s avoid the temptation to drive policy by cherry picking a few of heart-rending episodes of families tossed onto the sidewalk. Stacking the deck against landlords can lead to fewer rental units on the market and even higher rental prices, which boomerangs on conscientious tenants who do manage to pay their rent on time. If Virginia SJWs want to help the truly unfortunate as opposed to the free riders, they would be well advised to urge solutions geared to households’ specific circumstances, not one-size-fits-all remedies as in California. Better yet, SJWs should try their hand at renting out apartments themselves to see what landlords deal with. It might prove to be an enlightening experience.

Virginia Eviction Laws Stacked Against the Poor

by Marc Lockhart

Last Tuesday I joined more than 100 people for the inaugural meeting of the Campaign to Reduce Evictions (CARE), sponsored by the Virginia Poverty Law Center, at First Baptist Church in Richmond. We assembled for two hours to investigate why Richmond has the second highest eviction rate in the country among large cities and what can be done about it. The goal of the campaign is to produce recommendations by 2019 that state and local policy makers can use to craft solutions to the crisis.

Why are we talking about this — how bad is it?

Richmond ranks #2 in the nation with an eviction rate of 11.44% with 6,345 evictions in 2016, according to data from the Eviction Lab. Roughly one out of every nine renters was evicted, or 17.38 households evicted every day. Comparing it to the rest of the country, Richmond is approximately five times the national average of 2.34%.

Moreover, Virginia has half the large cities with the country’s Top 10 highest eviction rates. Part of the reason is that Virginia, unlike many other states, has a legal process that favors landlords. (See eviction data for details.)

As Omari al-Qadaffi, a housing advocate from Leaders of the New South, points out, “An unlawful detainer is the only civil action in Virginia where an indigent person is compelled to pay the appeal bond. Any other civil action, you can be excused from it if you’re poor, but Virginia is such a real estate-friendly state that you cannot be excused from that. Also, something unique about Virginia is that a general district court is not a court of record, so there is no transcript that’s kept. So …in civil court, defendants just get run over top of in general district court, and cannot go back to a record to say ‘hey, my rights were deprived of me.’”

How is CARE approaching this?

CARE is conducting a series of meetings and workshops to create recommendations. The inaugural meeting was well organized and drew a cross-section of people and stakeholders involved in or affected by evictions. The breadth of stakeholder groups assembled was impressive — tenants who are in the process of being evicted and those who have been previously evicted, landlords, property managers, housing advocates and aid societies, housing authorities like Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority interim CEO Orlando Artze, attorneys, court personnel, and academicians.

The meeting started with a moving, personal story by Tonya Kernodle who recounted her experience being evicted as “emotionally devastating.” She admonished the audience to widen its perspective about who is evicted. “Don’t think it’s some type of person; it can be anyone.”

Martin Wegbreit, Director of Litigation for the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, described the typical five-step eviction process, but noted that the duration can vary based on the court’s schedule and local practices. Nationally, 77% of evictions occur because of non-payment of rent and 23% for other reasons, like causing a public nuisance, poor building conditions, or calling the police too many times. Typically the process goes as follows:

Attorney Wegbreit noted how quick the eviction process is in Virginia and it favors the property owner, “the landlord [has many options] and has been made whole.  The landlord has gotten all of the rent, all of the late fees, all of the court fees, and all of the attorneys fees and is out nothing, and yet the tenant can be out everything, if the landlord so chooses.” Continue reading

Golden Goose to Emerald City: Drop Dead

Seattle homeless person. Photo credit: Crosscut

By Stephen D. Haner

The brief snippet on the telly that caught my attention showed a massive Seattle office building being developed by Amazon, and the report was that construction is slowing because the company might start reducing its footprint and headcount in the Emerald City of Oz due to yet another Occupy Wall Street-inspired tax plan. It is actually called A Progressive Tax on Business, and a Progressive Revenue Task Force created it.

It didn’t take long to confirm the story about the construction project halt, or to gather details about the City Council proposal itself and the national firestorm it has started. The legislation is worth a read for the truly wonky because of the long list of whereas clauses used to justify taxing the gross payrolls of any company with annual revenue above $20 million. In Seattle, gross revenue of only $20 million qualifies you as a little company, apparently, worthy of nurture. One more buck and bam.

The tax amounts to 26 cents per employee-hour, with a goal of extracting $75 million which is supposed to alleviate homelessness with the construction of new affordable housing units. In 2021 it becomes a straight 0.7 percent of payroll.  Moving out of town won’t totally save local businesses from tax. “C. The tax applies to businesses with employee hours worked inside the City regardless of whether the place of business is located within or outside the City.”

My favorite line in the Council’s own advocacy piece for the proposal is: “Why does homelessness seem to be getting worse as the city spends more to address it?” You can’t make this stuff up, folks.

City and county personal income taxes are imposed in several areas of the United States, but I could not find anything comparable to this – an excise tax per hour on every single hour worked by a company employee, janitor or white shoe lawyer.

The tax policy discussion on this writes itself. Of course the 26 cents comes out of the next raise or benefit adjustment the company was planning – it has to.   With so many competitors exempt, it will be hard to raise prices. And as my students can all recite now, businesses do not pay taxes, they get the money from ________ (multiple choice:  employees, customers, stockholders or all of them). Tax employee hours and you get fewer _______ (correct answer:  employee hours.)

But what also caught my eye was the gutsy power-play threat from Amazon. I know many of you will say: This is another message to Amazon to move to a lower tax, business-loving environment such as Virginia. But if Amazon comes, and brings the jobs and investment reportedly attached to HQ2, will anybody be surprised when it starts to throw its weight here, too?

Henrico’s Housing Whack-a-Mole

Delmont Street property to be demolished

Henrico County, following the priorities of its new Democratic Party majority on the Board of Supervisors, has created a $2 million fund to head off neighborhood blight by financing renovations and redevelopment of the county’s aging housing stock, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

As an example of what the fund can do, county officials pointed to a boarded-up property on Delmont Street near the Richmond Raceway that has been the site of nine fights, 26 firearm violations, and 13 vice incidents over the past five years. Three murders have happened nearby. County administrators will ask the board Tuesday to buy the property for $50,000 and demolish it.

Let us concede up front that such a development surely will be welcome to law-abiding residents of the neighborhood. In my younger days I lived in a neighborhood with dilapidated crack houses on the block where murders occurred, and I welcomed any action by Richmond city authorities to clean them up. I can sympathize with the Delmont Street neighbors.

But let us not delude ourselves that we’re doing anything more than playing whack-a-mole. Henrico can demolish the building on Delmont Street, but that does nothing to reform the behavior of the derelicts who caused the problems in the first place. The drug addicts, prostitutes, and criminals who turned the building into a hell-hole will just move to another location — perhaps an abandoned building, or if none is readily available, into a neglected property charging the cheapest rent.

At heart is the question: Do run-down buildings create poverty and the anti-social behaviors associated with poverty, or do people displaying anti-social behaviors gravitate toward run-down buildings and hasten their ruin?

The conventional wisdom among the professional caring class suggests that improving the housing stock will not only ameliorate the material conditions of poverty but address poverty directly. But that ignores why housing conditions deteriorate in the first place. Broadly speaking, the housing stock degrades for two reasons. First, because poor property owners lack the financial resources to keep up with the maintenance. Second, because certain classes of tenants, especially those inclined toward criminality, subject their houses to greater abuse.

Unless public policy addresses those realities (1) by fostering higher employment rates, incomes and spending power for poor people, and (2) by discouraging criminal and anti-social behavior, spending public funds to combat blight is as futile as a dog expecting to catch its own tail. This should be obvious by now. As a society, we have spent untold billions of public and charitable dollars combating urban blight by tearing down or renovating run-down buildings, and we have been doing this for decades. Yet the blight never disappears. It just moves from one location to another.

This is an iron law of economics: As long as poor people and the criminally inclined are with us, they will gravitate to the lowest-cost neighborhoods because that’s all they can afford. When they take over a neighborhood, the criminally inclined will run the buildings into the ground, those with financial means will flee, and the law-abiding but poor will lack the resources or incentive to maintain their properties.

Sadly for Henrico, it is on the receiving end of this migration pattern. Older neighborhoods in Richmond, being closer to the vibrant city center and benefiting from walkable streets, are being gentrified. Poor people are being displaced. And they’re moving to the old, non-walkable subdivisions of cheap, ugly, 50s- and 60s-era ranches where nobody else wants to live, mainly in Henrico and Chesterfield.

Henrico will need a lot more than a $2 million fund to cope with that reality.

Meanwhile, if we want to truly do something to improve the quality of the housing stock, we should stop throwing away money on futile efforts to eliminate blight and start investing in programs that address incomes and criminality.