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For housing abundance and diverse, livable communities in Asheville

Scarcity or Solidarity?

by Andrew P.
September 9, 2023

This member commentary post does not necessarily reflect the views of Asheville For All or its members.

On Tuesday, I joined the Tourism Taxes for Affordable Housing coalition in delivering public comment at the County Commission meeting. We wanted to take the opportunity to thank the county government for its continued pressure on the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority (BCTDA) to use the new BCTDA “LIFT Fund” to subsidize housing development for working people, and to let folks know what we’d been up to as a coalition.

When I do public comments, I like to share them here on this blog. And so the full comment is reproduced below, after the break. But looking at it now, I think the ideas inside it might need some more substantive exposition, so consider this a (very?) lengthy preface.

I’ve delivered a couple of public comments on this subject before, so I wanted to try some new things. I wanted to try to include some of my personal story more—something that advocates always say to do, but I’m not naturally inclined to do it!

And that led me to think about why I consider this issue a matter of solidarity. The idea of solidarity says that for a good percentage of the population that might experience the world through different levels of luck, wealth, privilege, fortune, misfortune, hardship, exploitation, or oppression, that group of people nonetheless have interests in common. In progressive advocacy and politics, the alternative to solidarity is charity or pity. And though you might win some people over with pity, it’s solidarity that’s more likely to create lasting change.

I’m not a service worker. But I believe more housing for service workers is good for me and people like me. It is personal to me.

So in drafting the comment below, this line of thinking brought me to the idea of how scarcity tends to spread. It creates compounding problems. And it brought me to think about how alleviating scarcity in one part of the housing market can alleviate it in other parts.

This very idea—how more housing mitigates pressure on rents and home prices in neighboring markets—is rooted in what people that study housing call “chains of moving” or “moving chains.” The idea is that when a new home gets built or becomes vacant, the people that move into that home free up a home somewhere else. And then people move into that home, and that frees up a home somewhere else. The important part to this, and one that is becoming increasingly well documented, is that these chains move across local neighborhoods, and across income levels.

In short, even though new homes are costly to build, and therefore they cost money to rent or buy, the added supply still helps. (And it’s important to say that new homes are costly to build for non-profit and for-profit builders alike.)

For an organizer or activist or anyone interested in housing justice, this concept sounds terribly wonky and technical. It’s just not quite as satisfying as saying “build social housing” or “tax the rich!” (I’m in favor of both things, for the record.) But I think we can understand the political implications of moving chains by a couple of ways.

First, I think it helps to think about the implications of suppressing chains of moving, that is, actively obstructing housing production and imposing scarcity. And this is no thought experiment, it’s what opponents of housing do all the time. Imposing scarcity and limiting mobility is, to be blunt, a feudalist tactic at best and a fascist one at worse. (By feudalist, I mean that which favors a system where rent-seeking is the preferred economic activity and enforcing barriers to migration locks in common people geographically.)

If you intentionally deprive a good chunk of the population of the ability to comfortably afford a home, and in turn convince another chunk of the population that their wealth depends on such scarcity—this is in effect how we talk about “property value”—you are ensuring that people will turn against one another in a bout of competing interests. It’s divide-and-conquer by imposing austerity. And conditions of scarcity and austerity have been shown repeatedly in history to dissolve bonds of solidarity and enforce defensive, zero-sum thinking across lower and middle class folks.

(Just listen in on any discussion around housing in Asheville, where scarcity has led to the scapegoating of anyone who isn’t “native.” Acceptance of a scarcity framework is at the root of this reaction, and it leads to the pitting of newcomers, refugees, and migrants against more established residents. It pits different kinds of workers against each other too; specifically, it scapegoats working people with tech and/or remote jobs. It also venerates certain reactionary forces, perhaps certain kinds of business interests or landholders, so long as they are deemed rooted or authentically local.)

Second, I make the argument below that moving chains can work “from the bottom up.” Moving chains are often considered as “top-down,” in the context of advocating for more market-rate homes in high-demand, high-value neighborhoods. That is to say that these homes will be pricey, but the effect of moving chains still helps lower-income people find more housing options that are more affordable. I believe that top-down moving chains are important and desirable, especially since there is no conceivable chance that we can subsidize enough construction to solve the housing shortage in any conceivable time frame through income-restricted housing alone. (Labor reporter Hamilton Nolan recently made this point really well.)

(And it’s why it will be important to pass aggressive and expansive “missing middle reforms in Asheville.)

But my point below is that moving chains can work upwards as well as downwards, and even if the former solution—kicking off a moving chain with subsidized, income-restricted new construction—can’t scale as well as the latter, it may bring more immediate relief (relatively speaking) to working people and is still worth pursuing in terms of activating solidarity.

The concept of moving chains and that of redistributive policy are not at odds; they are complementary.

* * *

Hi everyone, my name is Andrew Paul, and I’m a lead organizer with Asheville For All.

And just like other folks here, I want to express support for the TDA using money from its new LIFT fund towards housing for the people that make the tourism economy run.

And I know that you all have been working to put a little pressure on the TDA around this stuff, so I’m here to say thank you, and keep it up.

But really I want to talk about why I’m in solidarity with our service and tourism workers.

See, I’m NOT a service worker. And I do not qualify for income-restricted housing.

My family still struggles with costs. My two kids share a bedroom. I’d like them to have rooms of their own, and to grow up in a walkable neighborhood.

So I’m here, as part of this campaign, because I believe we will ALL benefit from LIFT funds being applied to homes for working people.

Here’s why.

For every group of restaurant workers that have joined together to rent a three-bedroom house, if we can find them better options, maybe more affordable, maybe closer to downtown, that means less pressure on the market for three bedroom homes. That helps me. More housing at all income levels actually helps all of us, working people at every stage.

I’ve got skin in the game. We all do. Scarcity spreads, and scarcity makes things worse everywhere and for everyone.

Everyone except landlords and REITS.

We know that housing costs drive inflation. Well there was a news report last month that the city of Minneapolis had beaten inflation. They did it with a few things. They got rid of exclusionary zoning, and parking mandates, and some of you all know I love to talk about that stuff, but they also created programs to subsidize homes for the people that needed help the most.

The result was actually lower inflation in that city.

I work two jobs and I’m a full time dad with toddlers. I can’t afford day care. It’s because scarcity has led to inflation.

So most people in this county can benefit if we can use the substantial LIFT money to attack our housing scarcity from the bottom.

And imagine if the TDA could say, hey we beat inflation! Come here, our beers are cheaper than other cities!

There’s the TDA’s rationale for funding housing right there!

We can do this, we can join in solidarity—that means we all have a common interest—and attack our housing shortage from the bottom up. Thank you.

This member commentary post does not necessarily reflect the views of Asheville For All or its members.

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