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Workforce housing

Why should taxpayers pay for this?

Mark Twain said, “History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Current affairs, however, are conducted in prose. Still, there are phrases that resonate.

Take, for example, how much the term “workforce housing” sounds like “servants’ quarters.”

A report issued this month by the La Plata County Economic Development Alliance addresses the purported crisis in workforce housing. While largely buried in jargon, it means simply that more and more local businesses cannot (or will not) pay workers enough to live in Durango. That is understandable. The local real estate market no longer reflects – or is even connected to – the local economy.

The report’s unsurprising conclusion is that the taxpayers should pay to house the workers local businesses need. Left unaddressed is the obvious question: Why?

Why are limited government and free markets cited when profits are involved, but taxation and subsidies are the answer to costs?

A better capitalist solution to a labor shortage might involve revised business models, innovative technologies or simply raising prices. A better housing response might mean helping young Durangoans buy homes, even if – as it frequently does – that means buying in Bayfield or Mancos.

Besides, why would we want to create a permanent underclass? However they may be phrased, workforce housing schemes are effectively about subsidized rent.

Rental units are a necessary component of any housing market, but they do not allow for establishing equity. And homeownership is the primary means by which Americans accumulate wealth. Why should the taxpayers encourage people to forego that?

It is unintentional, but towns like Durango already effectively encourage young people to make poor choices. It is a movie we have all seen – and one in which too many of us have starred: A person shows up in Durango in his or her 20s. A service-industry job provides some cash – and often a lot of fun. Already accustomed to living like a college student, the idea of roommates is acceptable. Besides, there is skiing, mountain biking, rafting and kayaking, hiking and all the other attractions of Southwest Colorado. Plus, there is vibrant night life, and lots of other fit and attractive young people. What is not to like?

Then one day that young person wakes up to be 40 – and has little to show for it. The choices that can lead to that moment are enticing, but the consequences can be severe. Why encourage that?

If the market can set the price of homes, why not let it sort out workforce housing as well? If million-dollar homes are OK, why is paying a living wage unacceptable? And if a hamburger costs $50, we will still have more choice in the matter than when it comes to our taxes.

The federal minimum wage peaked at $1.60 in 1968. Today that is parking-meter change, but back then $1.60 would buy more than 4½ gallons of gas.

The math is pretty simple. There was a lot not to like about 1968, but workers could pay their rent.