Opinion: A house is a public good

We know “home is where the heart is.” And, “there’s no place like home.”

“A man’s home is his castle,” while, “a woman’s place is in the home.”

There’s also “Home is what you want to leave when you’re young and where you want to return when you’re old.”

At the same time, we recognize ”a house is not a home.”

Those who build houses provide the places where other people make homes. Home builders may construct communities, but the residents make neighborhoods.

A house is private property with characteristics of a public good.

I’d better explain.

My house can be seen by anyone driving down my street. Unless I go to great trouble, I can not stop you from seeing my house. I can’t charge you for looking at my house.

But what you see of my house influences your opinion of my block and the price you’d pay to live near me.

Broken windows, leaky roofs, sagging gutters, piles of trash, and abandoned furniture are not inviting signs of habitation. Such a house may be a fire hazard and a danger to its neighbors.

At the same time, if my house has rats or unhealthy conditions, it may pose a health hazard not only to my family, but to yours as well. My children play with your children. I meet you in the grocery. We family may be carriers of disease, my house a public health menace.

Governments have limits on private behavior when public health and safety are at risk. Yet, we’ve seen great resistance to action that infringes on presumed private rights.

We don’t enforce building codes. We allow structural deterioration and abandonment. We don’t insist houses have adequate insulation from the cold of winter and the heat of summer to protect residents from chronic illness..

Our collective neglect is excused because we believe we’re protecting the poor and/or elderly who cannot afford repairs or adequate weatherization.

Yet our housing stock is one of the most vital aspects for the economic development we seek. Our state provides funding to restore abandoned, old movie theaters, but does little to resurrect declining houses.

Our reluctance to infringe on the rights of a property owner conflicts with the community’s need to preserve its critical assets.

What are the consequences of not accepting houses as public goods? It results in the decay of our central cities and the abandonment of our smaller towns. It encourages urban sprawl and environmental degradation. It results in cookie-cutter developments offering only a plain vanilla lifestyle. It disappoints and shames many who live in unvariegated dwellings overruled by uptight, self-righteous homeowner associations.

This infatuation with the myth of unlimited private property rights, also results in home builders having greater political influence than those who repair, remodel, and restore our private houses, our public goods.

Morton Marcus is an economist. Follow him and John Guy on Who Gets What? wherever podcasts are available or at mortonjohn.libsyn.com. Send comments to [email protected].