Say that you’re a lower-income working-class family and the house you’re living in is falling into disrepair. There are cracks in some of the walls, parts of the backyard fence have fallen in, and you know that pretty soon you’re going to need a new roof. You’re already spending $1,000 every month on your mortgage, utilities, upkeep and repairs, and that amount has mostly been rising, yet it doesn’t seem to be enough to keep up with what needs to get done. When you ask around the neighborhood, you discover that all your neighbors are spending considerably more than you are on their homes.
So how do you solve your housing problem? You could adopt a plan where you decide that you will spend no less on housing than the average expenditures of the six other homes on your block. After all, if your neighbors can afford it, why not you? You’ll give yourself, say, three years to boost your housing-related spending to the neighborhood average; from then on, every year you’ll get a report from your neighbors on what they spent on housing, and however much they’ve increased their spending, that’s how much you’ll increase yours. And to make sure you stick to the plan, once you agree to it, the money will automatically be withdrawn from your bank and deposited in an account that can only be used for housing expenses. Let’s call this the Home Ownership Protection and Expansion (HOPE) plan.
It’s pretty certain that before long, under this plan, you’ll have a much nicer and safer house. Your improved living conditions will address various risks to your family’s health and well-being that can follow from living in sub-standard housing and your investments will boost the long-term value of your home.
The HOPE plan sounds great, and your first instinct would likely be to adopt it. But my guess is that before you did, you’d look carefully at the rest of your family budget. You’d be reminded that you’re struggling to keep up not only with your housing costs, but with all your basic family needs – food, clothing, medical care, child care, car maintenance. The cost of all these expenditure items are growing, too, but now that you’ve committed to HOPE, almost every additional dollar you earn is available only for housing. You realize that you need to save more for your kids’ college and retirement, and your parents need help with the costs of assisted living, but last year two of your neighbors decided on major upgrades, so this year your housing budget is going to grow even more rapidly. When the economy hits a downturn and your company cuts back your hours, reducing your household income by fifteen percent, HOPE dictates that your housing budget is still going to increase.
To me, it doesn’t make sense to set the housing budget without any consideration to your overall household budget or your family income. It doesn’t make sense to let your housing budget be determined strictly by how much your neighbors spend. And it sure doesn’t make any sense at all to ensure that you’ll always be living in a freshly-painted house with new appliances if you can’t pay for groceries and your car has been repossessed.
This isn’t to say that there are not valid questions to be raised about why your housing is in disrepair, or why you’re failing to make ends meet, or what you can do to get your income aligned with what it truly costs to get by. You can commit to developing a real plan to address the problem. But to stake your future on the plan we’ve laid out isn’t hope, it’s dangerous folly.
For our issue brief on SQ 744 and related information, please click here.