by James A. Bacon
The Terraces at Manchester, a 148-unit luxury apartment across the river from downtown Richmond, opened in August. Its amenities include views of downtown and the river, an outdoor pool, a club room, a sky lounge, a rooftop dog park and, of course, an active urban lifestyle. Its cheapest apartment, with a small bedroom, a small bathroom and a living-kitchen area, rents for $1,200 per month.
Thank to an “affordable housing” ordinance enacted in 2014, the developer was able to pocket $2 million in real estate tax breaks over 10 years by renting 15% of the units to individuals making $41,000 a year or less. The company isn’t required to offer reduced rents in exchange for the breaks.
Now City Council has activists’ remorse. Councilwoman Ellen F. Robertson, author of the measure, wants to close the “loophole” she designed in the first place. “Once we realized there was a loophole, we decided to revise the legislation to make it more restrictive,” she was quoted as saying by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “It was unfortunate that we did have a developer that didn’t operate in the true spirit of the law.”
Yeah, right, it was the developer’s fault! He read the fine print. Shame on him!
“We fully complied with the ordinance,” said Robin Miller, one of the principals in the project. However, he added, after the project’s use of the tax breaks were reported last month, his staff has reduced rents for some tenants.
Isn’t that special? Tenants making up to $41,000 (more than the median household income for the City of Richmond) who voluntarily signed a lease, presumably because they found the cost-to-value proposition attractive, suddenly get a break in their rent. Well, that certainly promotes the cause of affordable housing for the city’s lower-income residents!
So, what’s Robertson’s fix? Here’s the T-D’s explanation:
Robertson … said her proposed changes tighten eligibility requirements for developers seeking to qualify. Among the changes the City Council will consider: requiring developers to charge rent proportional to a qualifying tenant’s income and lowering the maximum salary that a qualifying low-income tenant can make up to $31,200, which is 60 percent of the area’s median income.
If the program changes are adopted, the most an individual tenant could be charged is $780 monthly.
Charge rents proportional to the tenant’s income? That sounds like a winner. Imagine how tenants will game the rules on that one (with landlords doing a wink, wink, nod, nod). Say an unmarried couple wants to live in a project qualifying for the tax break. The partner with the lowest income rents the apartment in his or her name, qualifying for a rent reduction. Then the other partner moves in, too, and pays all the utilities and groceries. Trust me, this fix is ripe for abuse.
Here’s an idea: Maybe City Council should stop trying to “fix” the housing market and start acquainting themselves with the law of supply and demand. Instead of passing tax breaks and incentives, maybe it should loosen up zoning restrictions against building new housing stock. If the supply of housing increases faster than the demand, prices will fall.
But what happens, I hear the economically illiterate ask, if builders just build luxury apartments that generate the biggest profits?
Here’s what happens. People moving into the luxury apartments and condos presumably lived somewhere else. They put their properties on the market (or free up apartments for someone else to rent). Someone else moves in, and they create vacancies where they formerly lived. Ultimately, vacancies open up in the lower end of the housing market, creating options that poor people didn’t have before. Here’s the really astounding thing — it doesn’t take any tax dollars, and it doesn’t herd poor people into crime-ridden projects.
Unfortunately, a fostering a free market in housing doesn’t help the politicians. After all, any politician worth his or her salt gets re-elected by “doing something” that proves they “care” (regardless of whether what they do actually works). Even scarier for politicians, their low-income constituents might move out of their district — maybe out of the city entirely — to be replaced by affluent constituents living in luxury apartment who, gadzooks, might vote for someone else!
Sadly, in the war between economic logic and political logic, political logic usually prevails. As the T-D article concludes, Robertson’s proposal is on Council’s consent agenda, an indication that it is considered “likely to receive unanimous approval.”