Thomas Sowell

Behind the housing boom and bust was one of those alluring but undefined phrases that are so popular in politics-- "affordable housing."

It is hard for me to know specifically what politicians are talking about when they use this phrase. But then politics is about evoking emotions, not examining specifics.

In looking back over my own life, I find it hard to think of a time when I didn't live in affordable housing.

When I first left home, back in 1948, I rented a room about 4 by 8 feet, costing $5.75 a week. Since my take-home pay was $22.50, that was affordable housing. (Multiply these numbers by about ten to get the equivalent in today's prices).

After three years of living in rented rooms, I began living in Marine Corps barracks, and sometimes tents-- none of which cost me anything. That was certainly affordable.

As a civilian again, in 1954 I rented my first apartment, a studio apartment-- small but affordable. But a year later, I went off to college and lived in dormitories on various campuses for the next six years. None was fancy but all of them were affordable.

After completing my academic studies, I rented another studio apartment-- not a big advance, but it was affordable.

In 1969, I rented my first house, which I could now afford, after several years as a faculty member at various colleges and universities. A dozen years later, I began to buy my first house.

While the specifics will differ from person to person, my general pattern was not unusual. Most people pay for what they can afford at the time.

What, then, is the "problem" that politicians claim to be solving when they talk about creating "affordable housing"?

What they are saying and doing usually boils down to trying to enable people to choose what housing they want first-- and then have some law or policy where somebody else, somewhere else, somehow or other, makes that housing "affordable" for them.

If you think it through, that is a policy for disaster. We cannot all go around buying whatever we want, whether or not we have enough money to afford it, and have somebody else make up the difference. For society as a whole, there is no somebody else.

But of course political slogans are not meant to be thought through, are they? They are often an emotional substitute for thinking at all.

Sometimes some semblance of rationality is given to the phrase "affordable housing" by comparing the cost of housing to the income of those who live in it. That was certainly what I did when I rented my first room. That's not rocket science, then or now.

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

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