Letter To The Editor: Tony Berretta Said It Out Loud … Now We Can Talk About It…

By STEPHANIE NAKHLEH
Los Alamos

In a way I appreciate Tony Berretta’s anti-housing letter to the editor, as horrifying as it is, because he probably speaks for lots of people who think quietly to themselves, “Poor people are criminals and we don’t want them in this town!” but are too smart to say that out loud.

Well, Tony said it out loud, so now we can talk about it. First, is “affordable housing” the same as “low-income housing?” No. Low-income housing is a subset of affordable housing, it’s not identical to it. What is affordable in Los Alamos? According to Zillow, the typical home value of homes in Los Alamos, NM is $436,609. Further, they say, Los Alamos home values have gone up 13.3 percent over the past year.

Just some quick math: about half the homes in Los Alamos cost more than four hundred and thirty six thousand dollars, which is, last I checked, a lot of dollars and really not affordable for most people. It’s not affordable for firefighters, teachers, single parents, grocery-store cashiers, bank tellers, waiters, and most of the people who make this town run. Perhaps Mr. Berretta thinks those people are criminals, I don’t know, but it seems rather unlikely. There are probably more criminals on Wall Street, engaging in some shiny white-collar crime. Anyway, we need those kinds of workers in this town, and affordable housing would help them move here.

Low-income housing would help a further subset of those workers, the people making the least money — let’s say, perhaps, the waiters and the cashiers. Hard-working people just trying to make a living. People who aren’t automatically criminals just because they don’t work at LANL. It would benefit such people to be able to live in this town, rather than having to undergo a long, climate-unfriendly, expensive commute from somewhere far away. It would also benefit those of us already here, because perhaps Mr. Berretta hasn’t noticed, but we don’t have enough people to staff the businesses we do have in town, much less open cool new businesses we’d like to see.

Finally, we need to take an honest look at Mr. Berretta’s claim that low-income housing brings with it crime. We shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand, especially because, as I said, it’s a pretty commonly held belief. It’s also false. It’s not even a little bit false, it’s utterly false. In fact, affordable housing (including low-income housing) reduces crime! And increases housing values! A study out of the UC Irvine School of Social Ecology looked at this:

“The study looked at data three years before and three years after affordable developments moved into neighborhoods, and found they reduce most types of crime, especially violent crime, such as robbery and assault.” 

Here’s another story, from the New York Times, on an affordable housing complex that residents initially protested vociferously because of fears of crime, but which they now love. ‘But now, eight years after a legal battle forced the city to allow the development to proceed, Mr. Blaguski, 62, said he regretted his visceral opposition [to the complex]. The 102-unit complex is not the nuisance he had envisioned. When he drives by, he hardly notices it. And fears of a crime wave and plummeting property values — voiced by dozens of residents in public meetings — never materialized.

‘“I just shot from the hip on that and probably should have been more wary,” Mr. Blaguski said in a recent interview. “If they wanted to build another, more power to them.”

Good job, Mr. Blaguski! Let’s have less hip-shooting.

Here’s another study, from the Stanford School of Business, analyzing ‘affordable housing projects’ impact on the surrounding neighborhoods over a 10-year span.’ The study ‘found that new projects in poorer neighborhoods increased surrounding home prices and reduced crime, while new projects in wealthier neighborhoods drove down home prices and decreased racial diversity.

‘“Perhaps counterintuitively, if you build in high-minority areas, it will actually attract higher-income homebuyers as well as non-minority homebuyers to the area,” [researcher] McQuade says. “It can actually achieve to some extent a goal of integration.”’

Another analysis of the Stanford study shows that it looks “specifically at housing built using the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC), which provides funding for the construction of subsidized housing. By analyzing transaction and demographic data from 129 counties they find the following striking facts:

  • Neighborhoods with a median income below $26,000 see a 6.5 percent increasein property values within 0.1 miles of the LIHTC development site.
  • By contrast, in mostly white neighborhoods with incomes above $54,000, there are house price declines of approximately 2.5 percent within 0.1 miles of the LIHTC development site.
  • In low-income neighborhoods, the introduction of affordable housing decreases crime and decreases segregation.
  • In high-income neighborhoods, the introduction of affordable housing does not lead to an increase in crime.”

The Vox article summarizes with this: “This finding is a bit depressing in the context of the behavior of homebuyers in affluent neighborhoods. The low-income housing developments don’t increase crime, but people flee the area anyway out of either racial or class prejudice.”

In sum, housing in Los Alamos is very unaffordable, driving away all kinds of workers needed to make the place run. The shortage is one reason the pharmacy lines go across the store, the pizza place closes down, and kids are increasingly being taught by substitute teachers. We’re trying to undertake a number of measures with our code overhaul to increase the housing stock, and residents should support these changes: they are going to make the town better.

There are loads of other myths about housing and affordability, but we’ll save those for another day.

LOS ALAMOS

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