Fairfax County Public Housing Keeps the Riff-Raff Out

October 1, 2007

The Washington Post’s Amy Gardner did a terrific job digging up evidence of high-income people living in public housing in the Washington area. The article focused on Fairfax County, Virginia, the capital area’s most populous county and one where the average income is quite high in national comparisons.

She quite properly gave the director of the county program a chance to defend herself but didn’t quote any outside commentator on how ridiculous that defense was. In fact, Ms. Gardner seemed to swallow the idea that high housing prices justified subsidizing the lifestyles of people with six-figure incomes.

Here’s part of the county director’s defense:

“There is a public policy purpose in allowing higher-income families to remain. One benefit is that such a mix creates economic diversity. And a major incentive for families to stay, said Sampson, the housing department director, is the quality of public housing in Fairfax.”

She’s actually saying that Fairfax County public housing is nicer for poor people because rich people occupy some of the units. Not for the poor people who aren’t in the units!

The story effectively highlights what social observers have long noted: housing is one of the worst areas for government ownership and control. From the legendary inequities of New York City’s rent control program (remember Mia Farrow’s 5th Avenue rent-controlled apartment?) to this Fairfax County family housed at government expense despite annual income of $216,000, government invariably botches housing. And it often does so to the detriment of the poor who are the raison d’etre of the program to begin with.

Property tax abatements and exemptions aren’t perfect, but they’re far superior as a tool for local governments to help the poor with housing.


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