Friday, September 14, 2007

Housing: Pricing Out the Working "Poor"

Seeing naked men dance on bars was not the strangest parts of visiting Key West a couple years ago believe it or not. The strangest was reading the housing section of the newspaper. A wealthy person could hardly afford to live there. How were the locals doing it? Little ramshackle homes weakened by termites and flooding crammed together on back streets and they cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. People who lived or rented there shared their homes with others. But the majority of working people were being shipped in by bus each week from Miami, I was told.

And the workers in Key West didn't work very hard. One art dealer told me that he move to Key West from Michigan and was made manager by the wealthy owner within a month. He actually came to work, worked at work and felt tied to the success of the business. It was impossible to get good help, who spoke the language and could handle all aspects of the business. In another shop, the cookie sales girl had a masters and moved from Israel. She hung out with and lived with people she met. Key West was a place to travel through. She wasn't staying.

A service worker could not expect to work, live and raise a family in Key West. He couldn't expect to do that in Destin, Florida either or much of the Florida coast. And now, he can't expect to do that in parts of Connecticut and in San Francisco. I don't know how a truly middle class person lives in most of New Jersey or in and around New York City. Many people who would be comfortable in Houston feel poor in these places because all their income is sucked away in housing.

This is a huge problem.

The executive director of St. Luke's LifeWorks, the Rev. Dick Schuster, says Stamford and boomtowns like it should tackle the housing crisis out of self-interest.

"The people who are working in your restaurants, your fire and police departments, are all of a sudden finding they can no longer afford to live in the community where they work," he said. "And those who do choose to live in the community become the true working poor, hanging on by their thumbs."

What is the solution to this crunch? Are there to be service cities housing the servant class who get bussed to the wealthy areas?

In the planned community where I live, the solution has been apartments, low income housing, senior housing, and modest homes built next to village centers. People of modest means can walk to school, shopping, restaurants, etc. Heck, people of means can do the same thing. But the community was planned to include everyone at that outset.

To me, it's ironic that the bastions of liberalism like San Francisco, New York, Connecticut and Key West have ended up discriminating against those in the "lower classes". It is a problem, though, that will spread throughout the country if it isn't addressed.

How will the free market fix this problem? One thought is that good service will become extraordinarily expensive or non-existent so that the exclusive enclaves will become a double-edged sword. All the trappings of the rich will only be trappings for those of exceeding great wealth. Perhaps the mid-wealthy will move away to find better, more modest pastures. This is already happening around Silicon Valley.

This economic creep, where a teacher or police officer or grocery store manager is considered "poor" is distressing. These are good, middle class jobs that should earn enough for entry into home ownership where they work. Or, to me, they should.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Are there to be service cities housing the servant class who get bussed to the wealthy areas?

Like the "townships" around Johannesburg and Pretoria during the heyday of Apartheid? With similar sundown laws?

Melissa Clouthier said...

Forget sundown laws. In Texas, there are day time curfews. You can work, you just can't be seen.

sandy said...

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