The mayor of Duluth, MN, wants more affordable housing in the city. The idea has at least two problems. The first involves perspective, and the second involves funding.
First, perspective. Leaders of cities bemoan high housing costs, but that’s often the product of a certain form of regional blindness. To country folk who live in neighboring small towns, expensive housing in the city reflects access to amenities, like entertainment, restaurants, and shopping. Either you live near lots of amenities, or you don’t, and you get what you pay for. After all, that’s the first rule of real estate: Location, Location, Location.
City people seem to take these amenities for granted, and can’t imagine life without them. To city people, then, the truism of Location, Location, Location is about the city’s neighborhoods or suburbs, not whether to live outside the metropolitan area itself. With these blinders on, proposals like increased affordable housing make a certain kind of sense. The poor people need to live somewhere—in the city, of course.
“So, what, only rich people get to live in cities? That’s awful!” the city people say. But that’s not a real argument: to rural people, rural life isn’t that awful, it turns out. Rural people have chosen where to live, warts and all, and so should everyone else. It seems straightforward to them, as a set of trade-offs.
“But what about the service-people who make life in the city possible?” say the city folks. “We need them!”
“Dunno,” we say, “but I ‘spose you’d better pay ‘em enough to live there, or they’ll leave. I sure as hell would.” Etcetera.
(Cue the calls for government-mandated “living wages,” regardless of costs of living. But I digress.)
To further stir the pot, the affordable housing in the city is often newly remodeled or outright new. (This is true in Duluth’s proposal, too.) When people in small towns see “poor people” living in new apartments or houses in cities, and for as much as they pay twenty or fifty miles away, they feel ripped off. Betrayed, maybe.
The market—that series of trade-offs—gets disrupted, too. You don’t need to be a market warrior to see how that would have some unintended consequences, the enumeration of which we’ll leave for another time.
But that’s only half the problem. If cities wanted to subsidize housing to, say, enable low-income workers to live nearby and keep the city humming economically, most people in small towns wouldn’t much care, actually. A lot of them wouldn’t live in a city even if you paid them, thank you.
Oftentimes, though, cities don’t do the subsidizing—the state does. Duluth has been trying for years to get state grants to fund their affordable housing projects. And dammit, those Republicans—many from rural areas—just won’t fund it. It’s as if they think their rural constituents wouldn’t be keen on paying taxes so someone else can enjoy the amenities of the city. In new apartments, no less.
So, for city people, who often think of living in a city as an unspoken right, state-funded city housing makes sense. Rural people, though, don’t want to pay for other people’s access to restaurants and hospitals and better jobs. They don’t have those things themselves.
To them, housing subsidies are dark humor, and it’s not at all funny.
It’s not that rural people hate government, or don’t want to help their fellow citizens. Instead, they’re just not amenable to… funding other people’s amenities.
P. A. Jensen is editor of RuralityCheck.com.
He lives in northern Minnesota with his wife and son.