What follows is just an excerpt, and arguably not Mister Dillon’s primary point. His whole post is well worth reading.
There are several houses near ours that are nothing more than hovels. They’ve been neglected to the point they are no longer fit for human habitation. And yet, incredibly, they are being bought and sold to desperate people needing shelter. How? It’s simple really.
This ‘respected’ citizen then finds his way around the code enforcement statutes, buys the house for, let’s say $5,000. About a week after he buys the house he finds another desperate person or family, usually minority, and offers to sell the house for $25,000. Knowing that the house would never pass an inspection, he offers the house ‘on contract,’ telling the potential buyer (or ‘mark’) that he’ll be generous and only require $5,000 down and then get the rest through direct payments to our ‘respected’ citizen. The desperate buyer agrees and the wheels are set in motion. About a year after the deal is sealed the buyer defaults on mortgage payments after getting a month or two behind. The buyer is evicted and the process proceeds to the next desperate buyer. The offer is made again; the ‘respected’ citizen gets his $5,000 up front, and so forth. It’s a very profitable treadmill.
He’s not wrong; It’s stuff like this that keeps me voting Democrat as often as Republican, at the local level. (At the national level, well, I hope the Democrats will make that possible again someday.) Here are some thoughts of my own:
I’m surprised Habitat for Humanity isn’t all over this. Could they target some of these shacks for purchase, tear-down, and replacement? Still, they can’t do everything. Why is there a shortage of affordable housing? Here are some questions I’d ask:
What are the tax rates on owner occupied versus non-owner occupied property? If non-owner occupied property is taxed at a higher rate (Soak those rapacious slumlords!), guess who ends up paying higher property taxes? The landlord may write the check to the tax collector, but the tenant pays the tax.
A small number of tenants will trash the property and disappear. Insurance rates reflect this cost. And you know where the money to pay the insurance comes from.
The local building code might make it impossible to build decent rental property. How could that be the case? Set up a spreadsheet and see. I did this exercise fifteen years ago, and found that I couldn’t build a house and then rent it out for enough to make a profit. Even if I had had the cash to invest without getting a loan, I would have done better to buy savings bonds. The only profitable ways I could see were to build an eight-unit apartment building, or buy the cheapest existing house I could find. I did neither, deciding real-estate investing wasn’t for me. The contract-for-deed scheme didn’t occur to me. I know it exists though, because my father warned me about it years ago.
So it seems to me that the free market, as modified by local regulation, is failing to provide decent, affordable housing to a minority of people who want it. Mister Dillon points out that Christians have an obligation care for people in need. In practical terms, how? What should we do about it?
Well, Mister Dillon is off to a good start. He’s tried to get his friends at church interested, with disappointing results. He’s had more success getting the local newspaper going on the story. No matter the complexity of the issues, if people would be ashamed to have their behavior known, that’s a good sign that it’s unethical.
Beyond that (and shame will only do so much), what’s the policy answer? What should be the nature and extent of government involvement? A county housing authority? A higher minimum wage? Stricter employment laws? I’m not in principle opposed to these, but it depends on the details. It’s increasingly hard to do just one thing. The high level of home ownership that we have today is a result of policies put in place all the way back to the New Deal. One of the consequences of those policies is the shortage today of decent, affordable housing. The solution has become a problem in its turn.
Certainly Christians can differ in what they think the practical approach should be. We may disagree on the extent of government involvement. We may disagree on how much the Church should be involved in meeting people’s temporal needs. Not everybody has to be involved in everything. Some people feed the hungry, some people volunteer at school, some people try to craft wise government policies. You can’t, and shouldn’t try to, do everything. But I don’t think Christians have the option of doing nothing.
And that reminds me of a poem, The Sons of Martha, by Rudyard Kipling.