Monday, May 8, 2006

Why one solution to the affordable housing crunch... isn't ...

   Here are two contrasting footnotes in the nation’s affordable housing crunch.  Today, the Washington Post writes that land in Manhattan is now so valuable for housing that gas stations have all but disappeared from the island.  By contrast, NPR reported yesterday on the troubles of Newark, New Jersey, just ten miles west of Manhattan.  Once one of America’s largest cities, Newark’s population has fallen from over 430,000 in 1950 to only about 280,000 today.  The median home price is, according one source, only about $222,000, less than half that of the entire metro area.
   The contrast is striking: On one hand, there is a dearth of land for housing; ten miles away, a city has lost 150,000 people over the past 50 years.  Why isn’t the latter a partial solution to the former?  The reason is not that Newark is inconvenient.  A quick train ride away and close to the Hudson River tunnels, New Jersey’s largest city makes for a gloriously rapid commute by New York standards.  The reason for its unpopularity is, of course, Newark’s social problems.  Despite the nationwide fall in crime and the revitalization of cities, Newark remains one of America’s most dangerous cities (the NPR story quoted a high school student who said he is afraid of murder and crime each day).  Newark, a great majority of whose residents are either black or Latino, has a median family income of only about $29,000 – less than half of the state average.
   There IS affordable housing and buildable land for such housing in America’s expensive metro areas.  But because most citizens refuse to move to areas occupied by poor people and with crime (and I'll leave unanswered the question whether an area would become more popular if the crime were to fall but the demographics remained unchanged), the vacant lots remain.         

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