Thursday, August 09, 2007

Two Big Bugaboos

The Conway Selectmen recently went on record as opposing a proposed development that would provide affordable housing on land near the new high school. We have a serious housing problem in this area – ask any member of the local workforce. Rentals are scarce and costly. The average valley working stiff is never going to be able to afford to buy a house at the current rates. Wages are low, and the cost of housing is high. What our local officials seem to want are service workers who will come in, work uncomplainingly for low wages, and go somewhere else to live. Meanwhile, the building of expensive second homes for wealthy people who don’t really ever become part of the community goes on unabated.

The reasons given for the opposition were varied. Selectman Gary Webster was quoted in the Sun as saying the projected rents ($580-$982 for 1-3 bedrooms) might exceed local incomes. Selectman Larry Martin was concerned that the housing wouldn’t be limited to people from this area. Selectman Mark Hounsell was concerned about the impact on local schools. Mr. Webster should have checked the rental section of the newspaper. Rents already exceed local incomes. One reason for that is the shortage of rental property. By ensuring a dearth of rental property, the high cost of local rentals will continue unabated.

Fortunately we do have campgrounds and cars. Whenever the topic of affordable housing comes up, the Two Big Bugaboos are always right behind. The first one is that welfare recipients from Massachusetts will move here in droves to live in this affordable housing. One can see why they’d want to, given how easy life is here in the north, with our extensive system of public transportation. Yep, people “from away” are apparently just dying to move here to work for $8 an hour. I’ve been hearing that argument for 23 years now, and it still doesn’t make any sense. The other Big Bugaboo can’t actually be spoken – it must be carefully alluded to. People who live in affordable housing might have ….children. Those children might go to school. We want to have schools; we just don’t want to have to pay for kids to actually use them.

A brief perusal of the rental section in the Sun shows that the average one bedroom apartment in this area costs upwards of $600 a month. A one bedroom rental was as low as $550 and as high as $1300. Most were $625. The average cost of a two bedroom rental was $825. They ranged from the low of $700 to the high of $900. A three bedroom rental averages $1000. The low end was $850 and the high was $1500. Do the math. A person earning $8 an hour is going to spend over half of their monthly income on housing. The proposed rents for this new development are slightly lower than the cost of existing local housing. What a terrible thing that would be for the local workers who want to move out of their cars.

The beat goes on. A pity the low wage workers can’t just hang upside down from the eves of the many local McMansions at night, and refrain from breeding. We love the trophy homes, owned by people who don’t ever become part of the community – but we don’t want the people who work in our communities to be able to afford to stay here and put down roots.

A few years ago, the developer at the Willow Place strip mall wanted to build so-called affordable housing. His proposed rents were considerably higher than the rents being proposed at this new, rejected development. Not a word was spoken by an official about the rents being too expensive for the workforce at the time. That proposal was met with open arms – because it wasn’t affordable housing. It was expensive housing in disguise. Some readers will remember when Saco Woods was built as affordable housing. It didn’t stay affordable for long, and no longer pretends to be.

The people who make these decisions live in nice houses. They don’t have any idea what it’s like to be a wage slave in the valley, trying to find a decent, reasonably affordable place to live. These are not people who have to move every year or two because of rent hikes. They do not find themselves sharing living space with unstable roommates, just to have a roof over their heads. These are not people who have ever lived in a car or a campground. They do not have the faintest concept of what life is like for low wage workers, and they don’t really care. As long as there is an endless stream of workers (even if we have to import them) that’s all that really matters.

I believe in community. I believe that community is the solution to many of our problems. Refusing to acknowledge, or even attempt to deal with the very real needs of the workers in our area is the very antithesis of community. We do not build and strengthen our communities by building huge second homes that are seldom used. We do not strengthen our communities by making it impossible for the people who work here to actually live here. What kind of a place do we want to be? We’d better decide, quickly.

“Home is where one starts from.” T.S. Eliot

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