Opinion | Scott M. Estill: Who should pay for housing? | SummitDaily.com

Opinion | Scott M. Estill: Who should pay for housing?

I have written several columns concerning the housing and income inequality issues we face in our mountain communities. Throughout this time, it has been my position that a private-public blend would be necessary to solve the myriad of competing interests at play. A reader has challenged me to consider the possibility that it is not government’s role to do anything with respect to the current housing shortage in Summit County. Challenge accepted!

The current Summit County commissioners favor a governmental partnership with the private sector but also favor using governmental regulations to achieve its goals. Recently, the county extended its “temporary” ban on new short-term rental licenses, at least through the end of the year. Commissioner Pogue states that one of her priorities is to “fund innovative measures to improve attainable housing inventory and access, particularly in rental units. This includes buy-down programs and creating incentives for property owners who help address needs.” And I agree with her. But what if we’re wrong?

What if the government backed away and let the free market handle (or not) the lack of housing? What if the commissioners and other local elected leaders took the position that it is not up to the taxpayers to pay for affordable housing to house the employees who work in the county? Should the government be involved in the real estate business?

Instead, what if it was left to the devices of business owners to determine how to get and retain qualified employees? How high would wages and benefits need to go before an equilibrium would be reached regarding employment and housing? Would the wealthy residents and visitors continue to spend money if the genuine cost of the burger and fries included paying employees enough to live within striking distance of their place of employment?

It is most difficult for businesses to survive in an inflationary climate like today if it must continue to raise wages without the ability to pass most (if not all) of the increases onto its customers. And the business must ultimately decide how much more its customers are willing to pay before it becomes impossible to survive. Many businesses will survive. Some won’t.

Would the private sector find innovative solutions to their workforce housing issues if the government backed away and let them figure out an answer to the supply and demand equation? Would they propose innovative solutions without any taxpayer funding or use of refundable tax credits? Instead of spending public funds to subsidize the housing of private businesses, why not “just say no” to any more government social welfare programs for businesses and leave them alone? For its own employees, the county should simply pay its employees a more livable wage so that they can afford to live where they perform necessary services (looking at the teachers, police officers and hundreds of other public workers who are underpaid by any definition). It seems the least we can do for those who are effectively serving an always rising wealthy and most definitely upper class.

I doubt many workers want subsidized housing. Rather, they would prefer to be paid a sufficient wage to have some small choice with where they live. Yet, the very tight supply of available housing, coupled with the increasing demand for the available housing, will lead only to higher prices over time. It is going to get less affordable, not more, as the clock continues to tick. No matter how unaffordable prices ultimately go here (for rents, food, transportation, etc.), there will always be enough rich people to fill the limited housing supply. And with 2/3 of all housing units estimated to be second homes, it is an extremely limited supply.  

This all gets back to who gets to decide where employees in Summit County can call home. While I’m not advocating for a complete free-market response to the current housing situation (it’s not currently working) but suggesting that those whose first instinct is to throw more taxpayer funding at the problem take a step or two back and reconsider their position.

Unlike in Denver where several thousand individuals spend every night and day being homeless, Summit County has done a respectable job at promoting the overall health and general welfare of its population. What more should they be doing with respect to where people live and how much they will pay? Before you tell the commissioners to back off the issue, would you be content with my free-market type of scenario? If not, what would you do to merge the gap between a letting the government help with keeping the government out? Straightforward questions, but no easy answers.

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