Editorial: Housing and good government

Published: 2/23/2020 6:00:11 AM

Ronald Reagan, in his 1981 inaugural address, said one of the most ignorant things ever uttered by a U.S. president of the pre-Trump era: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.”

Reagan’s glib dismissal of the democratic process during tough economic times has been the keystone of countless arches of conservative dogma ever since. Remove it and they crumble.

Government, on a planet of 7-plus billion people and a rapidly changing climate, is needed more than ever. Good, transparent, effective, responsive government that is.

Concord residents are getting a taste of that in the city’s current effort to modernize its zoning code to deal with changed economic, demographic and social realities.

The proposed zoning changes, as posted on the city’s website, are not fare for casual reading. They need explaining, which city staff propose to do in a series of public meetings we encourage all to attend. The changes are designed to increase density, think not people per square mile but per street or block. It’s a change many cities are making to address what is, in many parts of the nation, a critical shortage of affordable housing.

The shortage makes it hard for young families to move to or remain in New Hampshire, for employers to hire workers and, increasingly, for those of limited means to keep a roof over their head.

That’s the case with Bette Larsen, a disabled resident of the Cranmore Ridge apartment complex profiled earlier this month by the Monitor’s Leah Willingham. Ownership of the seven-acre complex just changed and Brady Sullivan Properties of Manchester, the multi-state real estate development company that purchased it, is notifying tenants like Larsen that rents are going up and year-to-year leases are a thing of the past.

Larsen is 71 and living on Social Security. Her rent, she was informed by a letter slipped under her door, is going from $920 per month to a market rate of $1,200, far more than she can afford. Other Cranmore Ridge renters are likely to get a similar letter.

In Concord and across America, the landlords of old, the frugal entrepreneurs who put their savings in apartment buildings, knew their neighbors and tenants, and left the buildings to their heirs, are being replaced by corporations and hedge funds. Landlords, as often as not, are faceless and, as the language in threats of eviction drafted by law firms demonstrate, heartless. Nothing personal. Just business.

The companies can’t be faulted for trying to maximize profit. It’s what they exist to do. But Concord, like many American cities, is suffering a housing crisis, one too big to be solved by philanthropy or zoning changes.

Several things stand out in Willingham’s story. Larsen receives federal help with her housing costs in the form of a Section 8 voucher, which helps to subsidize her rent. She is one of the fortunate ones. The waiting list for vouchers in New Hampshire is five to eight years long.

Even for those with a voucher, little is available. The vacancy rate in the city is under 1%.

Raising federal rent subsidies isn’t the answer. The extra taxpayer money will be vacuumed up by landlords who will, as long as housing is in short supply, continually raise rents. The solution is to increase the supply of housing.

Which brings us back to Reagan, whose policies led to a decades-long federal disinvestment in housing.

Government is the problem when it turns its back on the young, the old, the disabled and those who, no matter how hard they work, can’t earn enough to make the rent.

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