Housing is our fundamental Infrastructure


Morton Marcus

Before we had water systems, storm and sanitary sewers, streets and roads, bridges, and other Modern Marvels, we had housing.

It might have been highly mobile tents or securely built into a canyon wall, but it was housing that defined a place and a people. That is still true today, but often ignored by economic development organization.

We like to say, “A Man’s Home is His Castle!” We proclaim, “It’s My Property and I Can Do With It What I Please!”

Yet, we do have zoning, building codes, authoritarian HooHaas (Home Owners’ Associations), property taxes, craft unions, Realtor® cartels, mega home builders, individual home builders, and their politically active builder associations …… need I continue?

Recently, the Indianapolis Business Journal (IBJ) published the remedies for rural areas advocated by five of the six Republican candidates for Governor. Where housing is mentioned by these candidates, it is lost in a string of items subsumed within a general policy statement.

Nowhere did I find reference to fact that 53.4% of Indiana’s 2.7 million occupied housing units were built 45 or more years ago. These homes can be great assets to a community, or they can be decaying eyesores.

We have minimal inspection of housing, a job that could be financed by our many community foundations with financial assistance by some of our most well-endowed philanthropies. But it will require training inspectors, a task which Ivy Tech is well positioned to take on.

We don’t know which houses have poor insulation, dangerous wiring, leaking roofs, and subsiding foundations. And, if we knew, we are unprepared to do anything about stabilizing/improving this vital community infrastructure.

Candidates may talk about improving education as a high priority for economic development, but people want homes today that are good for themselves as well as their children. Good homes, healthy homes, well-maintained homes attract and retain the people who make good communities.

Housing is the essence of community. Housing attracts retail business. Factories and offices attract workers who may not live where the jobs are. Without residents there are no schools, no retail trade, no poker games, no libraries, no celebratory parades.

Indiana is a state of home owners. Nearly 71% of our occupied housing units are owner-occupied compared to 65% nationally. If we were at the lower, national level of home ownership, Indiana would have 949,400 more rental units and that many fewer owned homes.

Does home ownership make for better communities? Or is it that housing quality is a function of income and age, not tenure?

How do we begin to acknowledge the community’s stake in good housing when so many property owners fail to accept their role in neighborhood decay? How do we support local ownership of housing when absentee landlords neglect their responsibilities?

When you read this column, it is likely the winning GOP candidate for Governor will be known. Maybe then the journey to November’s election will turn from petty in-fighting to serious consideration of making Indiana a better place to live.

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