Affordable Housing and the Choices We Make

We have heard a great deal about the need for additional affordable housing in Houston. Advocates have told us that over 210,000 households in Harris County spend more than half their income on housing. They have told us that children in low-income neighborhoods suffer from high crime and substandard schools. But in all of these stories, one crucial fact is consistently ignored. Humans possess free will and our choices determine what options are available to us, including where we can afford to live and what percentage of our income we must spend on necessities such as housing.

For example, if a teenager decides that it is more fun to skip school, his choice could impact the rest of his life. If he chooses to forgo the educational opportunities that he has, his earning potential is diminished. His choice will determine what housing options he has later in life.

Or, if he decides to have children at a young age, the financial burden of parenthood may reduce his ability to save for a down payment on a house. His choice will determine what housing options he has today and tomorrow.

Or, if he chooses to abuse alcohol or drugs, he reduces his productive capacity, his ability to hold a job, and the development of a career. His choice will determine his salary (if any) and hence his housing options.

The choices that we made in the past determine the opportunities that we have today. The choices that we make today determine the opportunities that we will have tomorrow.

The advocates of affordable housing want us to ignore this. They want us to ignore the role that an individual’s past choices play in his current conditions. They want us to focus only on the present moment and the fact that he is spending more than is desired on housing. The cause for this is dismissed as irrelevant, but the cause is fundamentally relevant.

The advocates of affordable housing want us to believe that we don’t possess free will, that we are products of conditions beyond our control. This is how they justify a focus on the present, with no consideration of the choices that led to it. Consider how often they cite statistics showing that children who live in low-income, high crime neighborhoods wind up in housing conditions similar to where they started. But there are countless examples of children—including Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner—raised in such environments who have risen above where they began life.

They chose differently.

When we absolve individuals of responsibility for their choices, we encourage irresponsible choices. When we tell individuals that they can’t help it, they don’t help it, or themselves. When we shift the consequences of poor choices to others, those who made the poor choices have no motivation to identify their errors and correct them. When we deny free will, we tell individuals that they aren’t responsible for their choices and the consequences.

There is a long philosophical tradition of denying free will, of claiming that our actions result, not from our choices, but from factors outside of our control. Whether it is our genes, our environment, or our social/economic class, many philosophers have argued that free will is a fallacy.

One need only briefly consider the myriad choices one has made in his life to realize the absurdity of such a claim. Each day we make choices, from what to eat and wear, to how to spend our leisure time and whom to befriend. Our choices range from the mundane to the life shaping. Those choices are ours to make, and the consequences are ours to bear.

Affordable housing advocates want more vouchers and public housing. But these programs address the effect and not the cause. At best such programs only resolve acute short-term needs, while perpetuating the myth that low-income families are victims. If the advocates truly want to help low-income families in the long-term, they would do far more good by acknowledging the relationship between one’s choices and the housing one can afford. They would do far more good by promoting responsible decision making and individual responsibility.

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