Something Is in the Water

by Joe Fitzgerald

Those aren’t wood chips or bark in the cow pasture.

David Foster Wallace tells the story of two young fish swimming along when an older, wiser fish swims past and asks, “How’s the water?” One of the young fish looks at the other and asks, “What’s water?”

Absurdity is the water that proponents of the Bluestone Town Center (BTC) are swimming in. Like the young fish, they’ve been in it long enough and deeply enough that they don’t know that’s what it is.

Consider this scenario. A city council member who serves as the council’s representative to the planning commission listens to a long recommendation from the planning staff. She then makes a motion to more or less accept the recommendation. Four weeks later, she asks the planning staff what their recommendation meant.

Yes, this really happened. So did the argument that building apartments in a cow pasture would preserve farmland.

The deciding factor on support of Bluestone Town Center seems to be the amorphous phrase “affordable housing.” Say the phrase and watch logic and critical thinking fall to the wayside. Press those pushing for affordable housing, whatever that is, and some will ask what opponents of a particular project propose instead.

It’s closer to a playground taunt than policy debate. But let’s engage.

Closing costs on a home include title search and insurance costs that add about 1 percent to the cost of a home. A title search meant hours in a clerk’s office 50 years ago. It’s not quite a mouse-click now, but it’s closer to that than to a paperwork search. Let the city’s housing coordinator handle it as a service. The insurance protects against something that rarely happens. Let the city or state provide it.

Then there’s the real estate sales person’s fee. Make that a government service as well. And when someone complains that it’s taking money away from the private sector, let’s remember that the local Realtors association is supporting Bluestone Town Center, which takes home building out of the private sector.

Then let’s talk about sidewalks to nowhere. The street we live on ended when it was annexed. Not even a cul de sac. It just ended. So did the next street over. That one now ends in a cul-de-sac. Our street was extended to meet the other. The new section, and the new cul de sac, have sidewalks.

They don’t go anywhere. They don’t make anything more walkable. They are just there. In the other direction, within a mile, are a bank, a convenience store, a pawn shop, and a tattoo parlor with no sidewalks to them.

The sidewalks to nowhere are required by the city’s building standards. City Council voted last night to lower the city’s building standards by allowing manufactured homes, which we used to call trailers or — when dropped on a makeshift foundation — double-wides.

Double-wides with sidewalks. Sidewalks are the ones that are easy. There are other building standards that add more to the cost of lot preparation.

These things add up. Without going into too much arithmetic about titles, sidewalks, and sales commissions, the changes suggested above would reduce the monthly payment on a quarter-million dollar double-wide at Bluestone Town Center by about $125 a month.

The playground taunt is, “Have you got a better idea?” Yes. Lower the cost of building a home in Harrisonburg. BTC would let government take over the construction of homes by letting the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority (HRHA) and its Mississippi-based partner bring in over-priced pre-fabs. It would make a lot more sense to let government take over the over-priced services that inflate the cost of a home, and lower the general building regulations to bring a locally built home closer to the cost of a double-wide from out of town with an inflated price.

Implementing these changes would be hard work, harder by far than rubber-stamping the HRHA experiment. But they could create long-term change and, if they spark more private home-building, create or preserve local jobs.

Let’s let the city be an experiment, if that’s the only solution. But let it be an experiment in easing local building, not in enriching an out-of-state, paper-pushing, tax-credit specialist.

We need to do more than just say “affordable housing.” It doesn’t work any better than “abracadabra.” Also, there’s no Santa Claus, and he’s not from Mississippi.

Joe Fitzgerald is a former mayor of Harrisonburg. This column is republished with permission from his blog, Still Not Sleeping.