Monday, March 2, 2009

If I Were Mayor: The Houston Hope Initiative

Last week it came to light that the city was considering a plan to help potential home buyers pay off debt in an effort to improve their credit scores. Though that plan was quickly pulled following public outcry, the essence of that plan has existed in Houston for several years. The outrage voiced over last week's plan should be extended to the Houston Hope Initiative.

Houston Hope is a pseudo-private, non-profit organization. Mayor White has made supporting the program a major part of his agenda--through the Houston Hope Initiative-- and a press release from 2007 shows the level of the city's commitment:

The City of Houston is working closely with experienced community development corporations with a proven track record of neighborhood involvement and of successfully building homes. Eligible home buyers can receive up to $30,000 in down payment assistance through the City's Housing Assistance Program.

In principle this is no different from the plan to pay off debt. In both instances, taxpayer money is used to help some individuals purchase a home. Whether that money is used to pay off debt or make a down payment is a mere detail.

As Gus Van Horn noted last week, programs such as this have visible benefactors and invisible victims. Politicians such as Mayor White love to grandstand with the recipients of their altruistic largess and bask in the accolades of their peers, but they never seek out those whose lives are harmed by confiscatory taxes. They pat themselves on the back for helping some people, while ignoring the fact that the tax money they so freely dole out had to be taken from someone. And that someone is often unable to afford his own home as a result.

Typical of politicians, Mayor White has promoted contradictory agendas. He has pushed for "greener" building codes, which have increased the cost of housing. Simultaneously, he has supported a program that has the stated purpose of providing affordable housing. Not surprisingly, no matter which side of his mouth is speaking, he is calling for more government intervention into our lives and the economy.

If I were Mayor, abolishing such unjust programs would be a priority. Combined with the repeal of building codes and land-use regulations, housing prices would become even more affordable in Houston. Rather than promote feel-good programs like the Houston Hope Initiative, which take from some for the benefit of others, I would promote freedom--the right of each individual to act according to his own values and judgment without interference, so long as he respects the mutual rights of others.

While housing prices in Houston are among the most affordable in the nation, increasing government intervention--whether through land-use regulations, building codes, or taxation--is driving the cost of housing (and everything else) higher. We cannot maintain affordable housing while enacting the policies and programs that create housing problems.

But affordable housing is not a primary--it is the consequence of freedom. Affordable housing has two aspects. From the supply perspective, freedom allows property owners to use their land as they judge best. On the demand side, potential home buyers are in a better financial position to afford a home when they are not taxed for the purpose of helping others purchase a home. Affordable housing is neither a supply not a demand issue--it is a freedom issue.

Programs such as Houston Hope are not a legitimate government function. They are nothing more than a wealth transfer and they should end--yesterday.

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