No matter where you’re from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor

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The central urbanist question for moderately posh urbanites like myself is:

“should poor people be allowed to live in our neighborhood?”

If the answer is “no,” then let’s applaud our intellectual honesty, and bid this entire problem Good Day, Sir.

But we’re not barbarians! Of course our neighborhood welcomes people of all incomes! So the answer is “yes, poor people should be allowed to live in our neighborhood.” Then the next question is:

“should poor people be allowed to have homes in our neighborhood?”

If the answer is “no,” then we are OK with people living here without homes. In tents or cars or temporary shelters. I think this is about as far as San Francisco takes this conversation; maybe they have solved it to their satisfaction. Personally it bugs me that people live in my neighborhood without permanent homes.

So let’s agree that poor people should be allowed to have homes in our neighborhood. (Yay us! We are so enlightened.) Now the questions get more complicated, because as it happens poor people have less money than us. A good place to start is:

“what is the price of a lot in our neighborhood?”

In my (inner eastside, formerly “blue collar”) neighborhood, a notional vacant 5000SF lot would cost something around $350K. This is about 5× the average Portland (city) family’s household annual income, or 6× the average Portland Metro family’s annual income. The cheapest legal single-family home you could build on that lot would cost around $150K to build not including the land. So the minimum viable single-family home in my neighborhood would cost half a million dollars, ($350K + $150K) or about 8× the average Metro family’s income. (Which, as it turns out, is about what the cheapest houses currently on the market are actually selling for in my neighborhood right now.) Most banks draw the line for a mortgage at around 3–4× household income, so an “affordable” house in my neighborhood should cost somewhere around $250,000. About half the actual price of the minimum single-family house.

(Notice here that we’ve already stopped talking about poor people, and now we are talking about average-income people. Already this is getting tricky! If we don’t figure out the money stuff we will eventually price ourselves out of our own neighborhoods.)

(Also, although I’m talking about mortgages and owning, the same financial math applies to rentals. Feel free to mentally add “or rent equivalent” to all the math here.)

But maybe we want to preserve the character of our neighborhood — its existing housing stock or population density or abundance of free parking? (That’s why we moved here after all!) So the next question is:

“are we willing to sell our houses for half their actual value?”

(We could alternatively subsidize rent for our new neighbors, but it would have to pencil out the same: at least 50% of our own mortgage!)

We obviously can’t afford that! But that’s the only way for the statistically average Portland Metro family to buy a single-family house on a full lot in our neighborhood.

OK…so…maybe we have motivations deeper than preserving neighborhood character. Our motivations might be resolved a question or two back, and the answer might be closer to “poor people shouldn’t be allowed to live in our neighborhood.”

Oh this is getting uncomfortable. We can’t get on board with that answer.

So if we agree that poor people should be allowed to live in our neighborhood, and that they should have homes, we need to make room for more neighbors on the same amount of land. The only other way around this solution is to make the land cheaper. For example a natural disaster or economic recession would tank the price of land. Is that really a solution we want to apply intentionally?

Yeah no, let’s pencil out the more neighbors on the same land thing instead.

We could build two minimum single family homes on one lot:

$350K [for the lot] + (2x$150K [two minimum houses]) = $650K/2 = $325,000/home

This is only about 5 times the average Metro family’s income! And if we put one more house on the lot:

$350K [for the lot] + (3x$150K [three minimum houses]) = $800K/3 = $266,666/home

Eureka! We have made it possible for poor people (OK, people of average income) to live in our neighborhood, in actual houses! (Not even apartment buildings. Just plain old houses.) It might even be possible to build those two extra houses on a lot that already has a house on it — which would mean doing very little damage to “neighborhood character.” (Stop demolishing Portland!) We have just figured out why we need residential infill.


These are some common yard signs in my neighborhood:

“Love Trumps Hate”

“All are welcome here”

“In our America, love wins”

“No matter where you’re from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor”

What do those signs mean? What does it mean to publicly proclaim “we’re glad you’re our neighbor,” unless we provide a place in our neighborhood for you to live?

Are we willing to put our money where our mouths are? To live the values (inclusiveness, acceptance, neighborliness, love) that we write on literal signs in our yards?

If the president had a less-ugly soul, would we still put up signs like that?


Edited:

I removed two paragraphs about an extreme solution to the housing crisis I heard proposed at a Neighborhood Association meeting about “having fewer people,” specifically via a pandemic. I assume no one seriously wants a pandemic, just to maintain an excess of free parking.