IPFS Vin Suprynowicz

The Libertarian

Vin Suprynowicz

More About: Vin Suprynowicz's Columns Archive


The term “affordable housing” gets tossed around a lot, these days. Take, for instance, the question of what the city of Las Vegas should have done about the run-down and unhealthful dwelling units in the Monterey Villas apartment complex, on Tam Drive just north of Sahara Avenue, between I-15 and the Las Vegas Strip.

Las Vegas has a “lack of affordable housing,” this argument goes. Therefore, a more traditional approach to the rash of code violations at the complex -- garbage on the ground, sewage on the floors, faulty electrical wiring -- might not have had the desired results.

That traditional approach would have been to give the absentee California owners a tight schedule to bring the place up to code, or else step in and condemn the Monterey Villas as unfit for human habitation. The goal would be to effectively force a remainder sale of the property to a new private owner, in hopes that new owner would either bring the property back up to code, or else demolish it and build something else.

But that would all take time. And it’s possible the property would have ended up as something other than low-rent apartments. Expensive condos for yuppies, perhaps.

So instead, without so much as an appraisal, the City Council last week opted to buy the property for $5 million -- twice what the absentee owners paid for it in 2003.

(Buy a property, collect rents while re-investing virtually nothing, and double your money in three years? Where do we get in line? And who’s the recipient of such largesse, by the way -- who’s the actual owner of this dump? Do our city fathers know?)

Now the city will spend more millions of taxpayer money renovating the 80 Monterey Villas apartments (doubtless demonstrating the kind of efficiency for which government bureaucracies are so well known) and go into the slumlord business -- all under the guise of preserving “affordable housing.”

Put on your earmuffs and prepare for some shrieking, but here are a few facts: Though fast-growing Las Vegas may be a partial exception, both apartment occupancy rates and rental rates are currently artificially depressed throughout the country. They’re too “affordable” (though this is well hidden by purposely understating just how badly the dollar has been inflated -- now down below 4 percent of its 1932 value.)

Enough new apartments will be built only when this situation is corrected.
The problem is the (little or) no-money-down home mortgage. This has drawn many renters who previously would have been unable to muster the steep down payment traditionally required for home ownership. When those apartment renters move into the new homes they may or may not be able to afford to keep up, apartment occupancy rates drop, and landlords have to keep rents down to stay in business. In this environment, fewer new rental units -- “affordable” or otherwise -- get built.

When bureaucrats and fans of government subsidies use the term “affordable housing,” what they really mean is that there exists in our urban cores a population living largely on government “disability” checks (often awarded for newly catalogued mental “disabilities,” which would not have been regarded as good excuses for these men to avoid looking for work and finding a more valued role in society, as little as 40 or 50 years ago.)

Those using this euphemism bemoan the fact that these unemployed or underemployed people supposedly cannot afford current market rates for an apartment (though they might be amazed at what else they can “afford.”)

Thus, they want taxpayers to subsidize the rents of these unfortunates, or (in the most insidious use of the term) they aim to twist the arms of would-be developers until they agree to provide some of their housing, below their own costs, to a group of very special “disadvantaged” people to be chosen by the bureaucrats.

(Most frequently bandied about as classes worthy of such beneficence? Unionized government police, firemen, and schoolteachers.)

The problems with what the city has done at the Monterey Villas should be obvious. The municipality will now use taxes gathered under threat of force from private-sector landlords, to go into the landlord business in competition with those very same taxpayers. They will undercut the lowest rents those taxpaying property owners can afford to charge -- that’s the whole idea -- and taxpayers will continue to finance this scheme as one after another of those private competitors gives up and goes out of business (after cutting back on their own maintenance in attempts to compete) -- further reducing the available quantity of decent, “affordable housing.”

Was there a better solution? Yes. Taxes and regulatory costs are a sizeable contributor to the “shortage of affordable housing.” If the city truly wants more “affordable housing,” it could easily lower real estate taxes, and relax zoning codes which make it nearly impossible today to build or convert a traditional “rooming house” or “residential hotel,” where single men could once live in a small but decent room.

(Seeking to ban them, a generation of government “urban renewal” experts labeled such domiciles “flophouses.” Apparently they prefer thousands of people camped out on the sidewalks and using the streets as sewers.)

The absence of this kind of less expensive housing, which could make it possible for someone to “work his way back up” without forking over thousands of dollars in apartment and utility deposits, is one reason hundreds of homeless men line the sidewalks of Las Vegas adjoining the downtown soup kitchens every afternoon.

More “affordable housing” requires less government intervention. Instead, Las Vegas will now try to manage another municipally owned housing project.

It’s been tried before. Look up “Cabrini-Green.”