Friday, May 26, 2006
What's the biggest housing problem in America's booming exurbs? From the news in Manassas, Va., outside Washington, the local government apparently thinks that it's overcrowding. Are there lots of tenements in Manassas, with parents, seven kids, and a grandmother squeezed into a two-room cold-water flat, five stories above a packed street full of push-cart vendors, with only a single tenement house outhouse in a side alley? No, that was New York in 1910, the last time that Americans worried seriously about overcrowding. The twist in Manassas is, of course, that the independent city's overcrowding laws are being enforced largely against Hispanic families, who often share a house as a way of coping with the Virginia suburbs' extraordinary housing costs. Although Manassas recently repealed a restrictive 2005 "family" redefinition, the city still rigorously enforces its overcrowding laws; the city even has an "overcrowding hotline" through which residents can make anonymously tips about neighbors.
Today's news is that HUD is investigating whether the Manassas law violates the Fair Housing Act by having an unlawfully disproportionate effect on against Hispanics.
Until I hear that the followers of Jane Addams find 1910-era tenement-level overcrowding in the United States, I argue that governments should abolish their overcrowding laws. The easy potential for abuse of such laws ("public choice" theory meets the Fair Housing Act) overshadows, in my view, any occasional benefit.