Henrico County, following the priorities of its new Democratic Party majority on the Board of Supervisors, has created a $2 million fund to head off neighborhood blight by financing renovations and redevelopment of the county’s aging housing stock, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
As an example of what the fund can do, county officials pointed to a boarded-up property on Delmont Street near the Richmond Raceway that has been the site of nine fights, 26 firearm violations, and 13 vice incidents over the past five years. Three murders have happened nearby. County administrators will ask the board Tuesday to buy the property for $50,000 and demolish it.
Let us concede up front that such a development surely will be welcome to law-abiding residents of the neighborhood. In my younger days I lived in a neighborhood with dilapidated crack houses on the block where murders occurred, and I welcomed any action by Richmond city authorities to clean them up. I can sympathize with the Delmont Street neighbors.
But let us not delude ourselves that we’re doing anything more than playing whack-a-mole. Henrico can demolish the building on Delmont Street, but that does nothing to reform the behavior of the derelicts who caused the problems in the first place. The drug addicts, prostitutes, and criminals who turned the building into a hell-hole will just move to another location — perhaps an abandoned building, or if none is readily available, into a neglected property charging the cheapest rent.
At heart is the question: Do run-down buildings create poverty and the anti-social behaviors associated with poverty, or do people displaying anti-social behaviors gravitate toward run-down buildings and hasten their ruin?
The conventional wisdom among the professional caring class suggests that improving the housing stock will not only ameliorate the material conditions of poverty but address poverty directly. But that ignores why housing conditions deteriorate in the first place. Broadly speaking, the housing stock degrades for two reasons. First, because poor property owners lack the financial resources to keep up with the maintenance. Second, because certain classes of tenants, especially those inclined toward criminality, subject their houses to greater abuse.
Unless public policy addresses those realities (1) by fostering higher employment rates, incomes and spending power for poor people, and (2) by discouraging criminal and anti-social behavior, spending public funds to combat blight is as futile as a dog expecting to catch its own tail. This should be obvious by now. As a society, we have spent untold billions of public and charitable dollars combating urban blight by tearing down or renovating run-down buildings, and we have been doing this for decades. Yet the blight never disappears. It just moves from one location to another.
This is an iron law of economics: As long as poor people and the criminally inclined are with us, they will gravitate to the lowest-cost neighborhoods because that’s all they can afford. When they take over a neighborhood, the criminally inclined will run the buildings into the ground, those with financial means will flee, and the law-abiding but poor will lack the resources or incentive to maintain their properties.
Sadly for Henrico, it is on the receiving end of this migration pattern. Older neighborhoods in Richmond, being closer to the vibrant city center and benefiting from walkable streets, are being gentrified. Poor people are being displaced. And they’re moving to the old, non-walkable subdivisions of cheap, ugly, 50s- and 60s-era ranches where nobody else wants to live, mainly in Henrico and Chesterfield.
Henrico will need a lot more than a $2 million fund to cope with that reality.
Meanwhile, if we want to truly do something to improve the quality of the housing stock, we should stop throwing away money on futile efforts to eliminate blight and start investing in programs that address incomes and criminality.