Friday, September 9, 2016

Airports need more cheap housing

Via reddit, the NYTimes has a short video about a de facto trailer park near LAX (more background here).

The video takes a pretty negative editorial approach, which may or may not be representative of the camp's population or airline workers generally (indeed, some less-visible employees are surely in worse living conditions). But regardless, it is a little depressing to see people in decent low/middle-income jobs living in such informal housing.

As the video hints at, the airline industry is uniquely conducive towards unusual and 'non-traditional' lifestyles, due to the availability of free or near-free flight benefits. Employees transfer from station to station easily and often. Many pilots and flight attendants are based in one city but maintain permanent residences and families elsewhere. Many airport employees choose to live maximally frugal home lives and travel the world at a pace most would find shocking.

In addition to these unique factors, many airline employees are simply conventionally poor and low-skill, and the airport offers good entry-level and sometimes unionized jobs, with good career growth potential. What is absolutely clear is that there exists huge demand among airline employees for cheap, bare-bones housing that is very close to the airport.

The depressing fact is that government regulations make supplying this sort of low-quality housing illegal. So we get informal trailer parks in airport parking lots.

Legalize dorms

New York City's LaGuardia Airport is a particularly egregious example of how an official lack of cheap housing within walking distance results in a huge grey market. The airport's surrounding neighborhood, East Elmhurst, is zoned for relatively low-densities (mostly single-family and multi-unit row houses) and is chock-full of informal and illegal crash pads, quasi-dorms and packed group house situations. Some longtime airline employees have purchased property near LGA and run informal housing businesses to earn supplemental income off folks just starting out or arriving from other stations.

In a sense, the system works okay. But the overall supply of grey market units is highly constrained and far sketchier than it would be if large professional builders could enter the market. A big dorm-style worker-housing development would fill up immediately and help a lot of people.

Over the last few years, we've seen a slight uptick in interest for small, dense housing (tiny homes, dorms and microapartments). This is probably because land-use restrictions (zoning, NIMBYism, height caps, minimum parking, setback requirements, unit size rules, etc.) have so limited the housing supply in desirable places that elites and people with even high-paying jobs are starting to feel the burn of high housing costs.

Growing awareness of this issue is great, and hopefully policymakers will enact reforms that enable small, dense housing at all quality levels. I fear, however, that reforms won't go far enough and will allow a category of high quality small units while still prohibiting low quality small units. Unhip places like East Elmhurst are unlikely to be first in line for policy reform, despite the fact that allowing low-quality dense housing in airport neighborhoods is an obviously high-yielding strategy.

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