Should We Subsidize Low-Income People Who Live in the Suburbs?

By Dom Nozzi

In my (cold-hearted?) view, the suburbs are inherently unsustainable and unaffordable. From a public policy point of view, if I’m an elected official, I don’t see how I can justify subsidizing people who live in places that are unsustainable, unaffordable, and inefficient to maintain. Even if those people are low-income. Anyone who lives in the burbs – including low-income people – must accept the consequences of living there. There is nothing remotely fair or sensible about folks who live in sustainable, low-impact, financially efficient locations subsidizing those who live in the financially inefficient, high-impact burbs (and who lower the quality of life of town center residents with all their car driving). Nevertheless, I have often pointed out that while it is tempting, I don’t think we should prohibit – by law – people living in the burbs. But if someone wants to live there, they will, as a simple matter of fairness, do it on their own nickel and keep their hands off my bank account. I see no reason why I should subsidize people – including low-income people – who opted for a lifestyle that requires them to live in the burbs. [As an aside, I believe bleeding hearts too often believe “less fortunate” people are forced to be in the life situation they are in. I very rarely think that a person is forced to be where they are – speaking as someone who grew up in a large, lower-middle-class household and who busted his butt to be where he is. I have many, many friends and family members who CHOSE to be where they are by opting to have a number of kids, opting to own and drive a (often expensive, new) car and/or by opting to party and watch TV rather than reading or otherwise doing the work that it takes to become educated or obtain an advanced degree.] The sooner the burbs (which, in the long run, is inevitable) whither away and are bulldozed, the better off we will all be. Subsidizing people – including low-income people – who live in the burbs simply puts off the day when we see the absolutely necessary, eventual disappearance of single-use burbs that cannot exist without cheap gas, cheap parking, free roads, and cheap cars. What we “owe” low-income people is a regulatory and price system that makes it more possible for developers to provide more affordable housing options in places that provide transportation choices. We should, for example, more commonly legalize “granny flats,” higher residential densities, sweat equity construction that is exempt from many building codes, smaller lot sizes, and mixing residences with retail/office/industrial. We also “owe” low-income people more banks who will give them location-efficient home mortgages. I am not convinced that low-income people are financially forced to live in places in single-use (residential only) areas without transportation choices. People such as Todd Litman ( have shown that “lower-cost” housing in the burbs is a false economy. That the several thousand dollars a household saves by owning, say, 2 cars instead of 3, or one car instead of 2, is money that can instead be directed to paying rent or mortgage in a mixed use, compact location. I think that in America, our media overwhelmingly touts the joy and peacefulness and safety of the burbs. My mother (and most or all of my siblings), for example, would NEVER live in a town center because she is TERRIFIED of what she believes are VERY high crime rates in town centers (my telling her that lots of information shows she is safer there than in the burbs doesn’t convince her in the least). Instead, she has opted to live in the burbs, where it is impossible to travel without a car. No one forced her to live there. Why should my taxes be higher so that irrational fears can be provided for and to enable a lifestyle that has no future? I believe that huge majorities of lower-income and immigrant populations have bought into the American Dream of the drivable suburbs. They live in the suburbs not so much because that is the only place they can afford to live, but because EVERYTHING they have been taught screams to them that the burbs are safer, quieter, cheaper, more convenient, and more pleasant than town centers. I think there are a lot of affordable town center housing options that are not opted for by people such as my mother because of their buying the American Dream, not because there are no affordable options. By the way, no one forced an immigrant to move to America. Most immigrants come to the US with stars in their eyes about how American streets are paved with gold (as my mother thought). I would NEVER, EVER expect citizens in, say, Denmark to pay higher taxes so that I could live in Copenhagen by buying an “affordable” home in the burbs of Copenhagen. If I could not afford a town center home in Copenhagen, I would not give a moment of thought to moving to Copenhagen. Moving to Copenhagen under the above circumstances is selfish and wrong in a great many ways. Where is the sense in creating band-aid fixes in the burbs when we know the burbs have no future? _________________________________________________ Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life. Visit: Or email me at: dom[AT] 50 Years Memoir CoverMy memoir can be purchased here: Paperback = Hardcover = My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: is the Enemy book cover My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here: My Adventures blog Run for Your Life! Dom’s Dangerous Opinions blog My Town & Transportation Planning website My Plan B blog My Facebook profile My YouTube video library My Picasa Photo library My Author spotlight


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Filed under Economics, Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia

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