Emmer: Is subsidized workforce housing corporate welfare? Of course it is (column) | VailDaily.com

Emmer: Is subsidized workforce housing corporate welfare? Of course it is (column)

Editor’s note: Find a cited version of this letter at http://www.vaildaily.com.

In ski country, subsidized housing is an itch that wants to be scratched. That bug for beds is biting again.

It is a simple problem: Rural resorts push up real estate values while they create lots of low-wage jobs. People are free to refuse those jobs. Job seekers have a rich variety of job choices. Unemployment is crazy low, and bosses are screaming for good workers.

People who accept low-paying resort jobs also accept a lower material standard of living to live in Shangri-La. They accept extra housemates, waiting for the bathroom or longer commutes.

Like many people here, I made that choice once myself. I lived in a “can of spam” as one of five unrelated guys in a two-bedroom trailer. We had a great winter. Today, that would make us heinous violators of the zoning code — that bulky testament to authority’s uncontrollable urge to control.

When people are unwilling to make that trade, and employers have no other choice, bosses will improve their offers. They will raise pay. They will.

Think about this as a boss: Say your people are quitting because they have to find three roommates and commute 30 or 45 minutes.

You could either raise pay so your workers can afford housing they like better, or you could use the political system to shift some of your labor costs onto others. A lobbying effort is a small investment with a big potential payoff.

Reducing payroll could easily be worth tens of thousands of dollars for a small organization and hundreds of thousands or even millions for the big boys and girls. We all have heard reports that political involvement offers huge returns on investment for people who can afford to ante up. It looks like that applies even to our local governments.

In my view, business gets most of the credit for raising the masses from Bronze Age poverty to universal indoor plumbing, free video conferencing and middle-market cruises for blue-haired widows from Tucson.

Business’ chief virtue is its “you do what you’ve got to do” motivation to achieve its mission at the least cost possible. That leads us back to the political system.

To most big businesses, nonprofits, unions and government organizations, politics is not about the peoples’ will or justice or democracy. It is just another tool to get ahead. Public officials welcome organizations’ influence when they can make common cause.

Just as subsidized housing helps businesses lower employee expenses, it works the same magic for public employers, too.

The first agency sheds labor costs via subsidized housing. That frees up cash for other things. Downstream, the housing, planning and zoning organs get more business, budget and staff. The network of companies, politicians and agencies high-five one other because it’s, like, you know, a total win-win-win.

Except, of course, for the woman on the street who is picking up the tab.

OK, it’s just a theory. Yet it is textbook organizational behavior.

Let me be clear that I’m not talking about subsidized housing for seniors or the disabled or people unemployable for other reasons. That’s a whole ’nuther smoke and a whole different issue.

Then there is the impact on the low-wage workers themselves. Subsidized housing is an incentive to stay for a second season — or a third or more. It lures people away from college or a better-paying career path. That’s often a mistake.

Given today’s closeness to the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, note that housing subsidies could easily qualify as a subtle form of worker exploitation. They benefit employers at others’ expense.

The worker exploitation charge carries more weight for deed-restricted housing. On average, home equity has been one of middle America’s best tools of advancement. Deed restrictions stifle that equity build up.

Nationally, taxes and fresh government borrowing are more than $49,000 per household, per year. Health care costs add another $14,000. There is no grand plan, there is no competent review; there is tiny justification, there is painfully little democracy. The whole system needs a rethink.

Meanwhile, big business profits are running at forebodingly high levels. Organizations can easily afford to pay their people better. However, it is cheaper to pull some heartstrings than to pull some political strings. This is the path of least resistance, the path of lowest cost.

Is this not corporate welfare, more income inequality, another cram-down? Of course it is.

Do you think that subsidizing profitable business is the best use of your personal money, more so than clean energy research, more so than paying off the family mortgage, more so than educating African kids, or your own?

Me either.

Vince Emmer is a financial analyst who runs Citizens Due Diligence in his off hours. Reach him at vince.emmer@cdudil.com.

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