Lured to Disaster

Thursday's Editorial   —   Posted on February 26, 2009

(by Thomas Sowell, – Behind the housing boom and bust was one of those alluring but undefined phrases that are so popular in politics – “affordable housing.”

It is hard for me to know specifically what politicians are talking about when they use this phrase. But then politics is about evoking emotions, not examining specifics.

In looking back over my own life, I find it hard to think of a time when I didn’t live in affordable housing.

When I first left home, back in 1948, I rented a room about 4 by 8 feet, costing $5.75 a week. Since my take-home pay was $22.50, that was affordable housing. (Multiply these numbers by about ten to get the equivalent in today’s prices).

After three years of living in rented rooms, I began living in Marine Corps barracks, and sometimes tents-none of which cost me anything. That was certainly affordable.

As a civilian again in 1954, I rented my first apartment, a studio apartment-small but affordable. But a year later, I went off to college and lived in dormitories on various campuses for the next six years. None was fancy but all of them were affordable.

After completing my academic studies, I rented another studio apartment-not a big advance, but it was affordable.

In 1969, I rented my first house, which I could now afford, after several years as a faculty member at various colleges and universities. A dozen years later, I began to buy my first house.

While the specifics will differ from person to person, my general pattern was not unusual. Most people pay for what they can afford at the time.

What, then, is the “problem” that politicians claim to be solving when they talk about creating “affordable housing?”

What they are saying and doing usually boils down to trying to enable people to choose what housing they want first-and then have some law or policy where somebody else, somewhere else, somehow or other, makes that housing “affordable” for them.

If you think it through, that is a policy for disaster. We cannot all go around buying whatever we want, whether or not we have enough money to afford it, and have somebody else make up the difference. For society as a whole, there is no somebody else.

But of course political slogans are not meant to be thought through, are they? They are often an emotional substitute for thinking at all.

Sometimes some semblance of rationality is given to the phrase “affordable housing” by comparing the cost of housing to the income of those who live in it. That was certainly what I did when I rented my first room. That’s not rocket science, then or now.

The difference is that today there is some arbitrary percentage of one’s income that sets the limit to what the government will consider to be affordable housing. It used to be 25 percent but it might be 30 percent or some other proportion.

But, whatever the percentage, it is no longer the individual’s responsibility to choose housing that fits within that limit. It is somehow the taxpayers’ job to make up the difference, when someone chooses housing whose cost exceeds that magic number.

It is certainly no longer considered to be the individual’s own responsibility to acquire the work skills and experience to be able to earn enough to afford better housing as the years passed. Why do that, when the government can simply “spread the wealth around,” to use another political phrase?

The ultimate irony is that increasing government intervention in the housing market over the years has generally made housing less affordable than before, by any standard.

A hundred years ago, Americans spent a smaller percentage of their incomes on housing than they do today. In 1901, housing costs took 23 percent of the average American’s income. By 2003, it took 33 percent of a far larger income.

In particular places where government regulations and restrictions have been especially severe, such as coastal California, rents or monthly mortgage payments have averaged as high as 50 percent of the average person’s income.

Most of our problems are not nearly as severe as political “solutions.” In housing, government policies have lured people into situations that were untenable to them and to the country.

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Originally published January 20, 2009.  Reprinted here on February 12, 2009, for educational purposes only. May not be reproduced on other websites without permission from National Review. Visit the website at