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Housing should never be a zero-sum game

Amazon’s recent decision to reverse its decision to move 25,000 jobs to New York has exposed the fallacy of the “zero-sum game,” where one side must lose so the other can win. This is an approach I first became exposed to during my coverage of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan when I was a reporter in the 1980s. Enaytollah Qadiri, a quiet and humble accountant from Kabul who was my translator, explained that any form of compromise was an act of personal and spiritual shame to the Pashtun tribesmen. In America, compromise is woven into nearly everything we do. But many still cling to the ancient principle of winner take all. And that’s what happened over the last month in New York.

Moving 25,000 jobs into any community is going to have an impact on housing values as well as employment and development. These impacts can be channeled to support the entire community, or they can lead to displacement. To achieve the greatest good, communication and compromise is essential. What happened instead, is that community advocates concerned about displacement embraced a zero-sum game approach, where any victory for Amazon was a loss for the community. Some argued that $3 billion in tax breaks promised to Amazon for locating in New York were better spent on housing and education. But there wasn’t any $3 billion. It was a discount on the taxes that would be paid on nearly $30 billion of economic activity that won’t be happening. But activists aren’t the only ones to blame.
Amazon was also playing a zero-sum game that never works in community development. As the New York Times reported on Feb. 14, “the company did not hire a single New Yorker as an employee to represent it in discussions with local groups. Its main representatives traveled between Washington and Manhattan, and only one had moved into an apartment to work with community members and foster support.” Had Amazon spent that money building bridges to local leaders so they could have developed a plan to invest in affordable housing and job training that would have avoided the displacement that has hurt Seattle and made it unaffordable for Amazon’s employees there to live where they work.
Finding common ground around affordable housing is essential to NHC’s core mission. It’s why we have been diligent about supporting both the national Housing Trust Fund and the Capital Magnet Fund, two critical engines of community development set up in the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008. Too often, proponents of housing for extremely low-income housing and developers of low-moderate income housing find themselves arguing the same zero-sum game. This week, we sent a letter to Comptroller of the Currency Joseph Otting, who is also acting director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) to urge him to support this year’s allocation for both funds. I also wrote an op-ed on the funds for The Hill. This letter was signed by a wide range of national and local affordable housing developers and advocates. In his Senate confirmation hearing Thursday, President Trump’s nominee to lead FHFA, Mark Calabria, said that suspending funding “is only going to happen if the GSEs are essentially failing — and my primary responsibilities, if confirmed as FHFA director, is to make sure that doesn’t happen.” That is reassuring, but only if the funds aren’t suspended before he is confirmed.
Affordable housing is a continuum that stretches from homeownership to homelessness. When the homeownership rate falls, we have more renters, which increases the cost of renting. Higher rents push affordability down the income scale and ultimately contributes to economic homelessness, which is growing in record numbers. The bottom line is that housing should never be a zero-sum game. We all win when we all win.
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