The Hunger Games: Amazon Edition

photo by SounderBruce

The New York Law Journal published commentary of mine, The Hunger Games: Amazon Edition. It opens,

Last week Amazon finally announced that New York and Northern Virginia would be the sites of its planned major expansion. While many are caught up in the excitement of Amazon bringing 25,000 high-paid jobs to both metropolitan areas, it is worth thinking through the costs that beauty contests like this one impose on state and local governments. Amazon extracted billions of dollars in concessions from the winners and could have extracted even more from some of the other cities courting them.

It is economically rational for companies to create such Hunger Games-type competitions among communities. These competitions reduce their costs and improve their bottom lines. But is it economically rational for the cities? As long as governments are acting independently, yes, it is rational for them to race to the bottom to secure a win. So long as they are a bit better off by snagging the prize than they would have been otherwise, they come out ahead. But the metrics that politicians use are unlikely to be limited to a hard-nosed accounting of costs and increased tax revenues. Positive buzz may be enough to satisfy them.

Consider Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s deal with Foxconn. Just over a year ago, he was touting the $3 billion state subsidy for FoxConn’s manufacturing plant. This was the year leading up to his hard fought election fight, a fight he ultimately lost. His public statements focused on Foxconn’s promise to create 13,000 jobs. While that was a lot of jobs, it was a hell of a lot of subsidy—more than $230,000 per job, more than six times the largest amount Wisconsin had ever paid to subsidize a promised job. Walker got his campaign issue, FoxConn got its $3 billion and Wisconsin residents got … had. The $3 billion dollar subsidy has grown to over $4 billion at the same time that Foxconn is slowing down its investment in Wisconsin. So now taxpayers are subsidizing each job by well over $300,000 each. Nonpartisan analysts have determined that it will take decades, at the earliest, for Wisconsin to recoup its “investment.”

Likewise, hundreds of millions of dollars are thrown at stadiums and arenas even though economists have clearly demonstrated that those investments do not generate a positive financial return for the governments that provide these subsidies. Fancy consultants set forth all of the supposed benefits: job creation, direct spending by all of the people drawn to the facility, indirect spending by those who service the direct spenders. This last metric is meant to capture the increase in restaurant staff, Uber drivers and others who will cater to the new employees, residents and visitors to the facility. But as has been shown time and time again, these metrics are vastly overstated and willingly accepted at face value by politicians eager to generate some good headlines. They also ignore the opportunity cost of the direct subsidies—monies spent on attracting a company is money that can’t be spent on anything else. While we don’t know what it would have been spent on, it is likely to have been public schools, mass transit, roads or affordable housing in many communities.


The Gap in Affordable Homes

photo by Kenneth Frantz

The National Low Income Housing Coalition posted a report, The Gap: A Shortage of Affordable Homes. The report opens,

For the first time since the recession, U.S. household income increased significantly during 2015. Gains were seen even among the lowest income households, with the poverty rate declining from 14.8% to 13.5%. Millions of people, however, continue to struggle economically. Household income for the poorest 10% of households remains 6% lower today than in 2006, and more than 43 million Americans remain in poverty, many of whom struggle to afford their homes.

Each year, the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) measures the availability of rental housing affordable to extremely low income (ELI) households and other income groups. This year’s analysis is slightly different from previous years in that NLIHC adopted the federal government’s new statutory definition for ELI, which are households whose income is at or below either the poverty guideline or 30% of their area median income (AMI), whichever is higher. Based on 2015 American Community Survey (ACS) data, this report provides information on the affordable housing supply and housing cost burdens at the national, state, and metropolitan levels. This year’s analysis continues to show that ELI households face the largest shortage of affordable and available rental housing and have more severe housing cost burdens than any other group. (2, citations omitted)

The report’s key findings include:

• 11.4 million ELI renter households accounted for 26% of all U.S. renter households and nearly 10% of all households.

• The U.S. has a shortage of 7.4 million affordable and available rental homes for ELI renter households, resulting in 35 affordable and available units for every 100 ELI renter households.

• Seventy-one percent of ELI renter households are severely cost-burdened, spending more than half of their income on rent and utilities. These 8.1 million severely cost-burdened households account for 72.6% of all severely cost-burdened renter households in the U.S.

• Thirty-three percent of very low income (VLI) renter households; 8.2% of low income (LI) renter households, and 2.4% of middle income (MI) renter households are severely cost-burdened.

• ELI renter households face a shortage of affordable and available rental homes in every state. The shortage ranges from just 15 affordable and available homes for every 100 ELI renter households in Nevada to 61 in Alabama.

• The housing shortage for ELI renters ranges from 8,700 rental homes in Wyoming to 1.1 million in California. (2)

It is of course important to talk about this gap as an affordable housing issue, but as I have written before, it is as much an income problem as a housing problem. It’s not just that the rent is too damn high, but that the paycheck is just too damn low.

I don’t see anything on the political horizon that will address this fundamental set of problems, but we should at least identify it properly so we can work toward a solution when the time is right.