Issue advocates will always see their issues as critical and leading, but the reality is that housing is and should be a secondary issue at the statewide scale. (Obviously, it’s a basic necessity and high priority from the perspective of the individual family.) It’s plainly obvious that people don’t need housing in places they’ve got no reason to live, and it should be just as obvious that the public doesn’t have an obligation to subsidize housing to satisfy every reason that a person might want to live in a particular place.
As presented in a Ted Nesi article, today, housing advocates in Rhode Island attempt to get around these obvious points by presenting housing as if it’s a leading problem or driver of business:
“We are simply not building enough housing, which is continuing to drive up the cost, because the supply is not there,” Barbara Fields, executive director of Rhode Island Housing, told reporters during a briefing on the report’s findings. “The fact is, incomes in Rhode Island have not kept pace with housing costs,” she said.
Added Nicholas Retsinas, chairman of Rhode Island Housing’s board of commissioners: “We’re not going to be able to attract and retain a labor force that’s necessary to attract businesses.”
In short, Retsinas is proffering housing as a business subsidy. Pairing that pitch with Fields’s view that family incomes are falling behind the cost of housing shows just how much those who work in public policy in Rhode Island have to untangle this issue, because the advocates have no coherent narrative. Why are those people in Rhode Island, working jobs that can’t support life here? Why are the businesses here if they can’t pay their employees enough to live?
Underlying this puzzle is Rhode Island’s habit of subsidizing insiders and favored businesses and industries. If that’s the structure of our local economy, the market can’t differentiate between businesses that can’t survive without subsidies because they’re badly run, bad ideas, or antiquated and those that can’t survive just because Rhode Island government makes it difficult for them to get by. Most likely, Rhode Island’s approach has a detrimental effect, inasmuch as companies that could succeed without Rhode Island government’s imposed burdens can simply move while those that require subsidies because they aren’t good companies couldn’t survive anywhere else, either.
The economy ought to go the other way: The state shouldn’t be the driver of economic activity; rather, economic activity ought to benefit the state. If state and local governments would stop erecting barriers, then we’d develop industries that are valuable in their own right, without selecting for those that are able to survive in our hostile environment, and those industries would drive incomes sufficient to afford housing.