What an old Yiddish yarn can teach us about the housing “affordability” scam.

Let’s start with an old Yiddish story :

A wandering Jew wanders into a small flophouse late one cold and stormy night.

“All full up,” says the innkeeper. “Two, three to a bed. Let’s see . . . We’ve got a seven-foot Cossack in one of the cots up on the top floor. You’re kinda small—you can try climbing in beside him.”

Thankfully accepting the gracious offer, the wandering Jew climbs the stairs to the garret, but not before asking the innkeeper to wake him well before dawn. “Got a train to catch,” he says importantly.

Before he knows it, there’s a hand shaking him awake. “It’s well before dawn,” says a voice. “Your train.”

He dresses hurriedly in the dark and rushes to the train station. On the way to the platform he passes a large mirror in an ornate frame. A Cossack in uniform looks back at him.

“That idiot innkeeper!” he exclaims in dismay. “He woke up the Cossack instead of the wandering Jew. I’ll never make it back in time to wake myself up in time to catch my train!”

While there’s a great commentary embedded in this old yarn about appearances and attire,i the opening paragraphs describing several men “co-sleeping”ii in a rented room seem uniquely peculiar only from the uniquely peculiar vantage point of the post-modern man. In our tautologically regulated world, we think it highly “unfair” and perhaps even “unsanitary” that so many people should be wedged into confines so tight, and yet this is in fact the historic way that humanity has lived and the way it still does in much of the world’s increasingly dense cities.iii Only within bureaucratic beasts like Vancouver or New York is 600 sft per household some kind of expected area minimum. In most of the world and for most of human history, that kind of area is enough to house a family… or five. I mean if you can fit two-to-a-bed in a roadside inn, why can’t a couple, perhaps even with a toddler, live in 200-300 square feet of living space ? Given that such cozy accommodations are usually only temporary (outside of favellas and other slums), what’s the big deal ? This of course brings us neatly to the old “bootlegger and baptist” problem, as described by architect and urbanist Alain Bertaud in his recent interview with Russ Roberts :

As soon as the regulator wants to be nice with those households by saying, ‘No, no, no: You would like to live in the center of Manhattan but in the certain square meter, but in fact, you will be much better off if we impose developers to build at least 60 square meters, you know, and not less–so, as soon as they do that, they of course eliminate a large number of people who cannot afford those 60 square meters. This is not the only thing which creates a constraint in New York City or San Francisco. It’s not only the regulation, you know, those minimum apartment size. You have all sorts of zoning which do not allow–for instance, in Manhattan, you will not allow housing in some areas which are still considered manufacturing, for some reason–although there is practically no manufacturing left in Manhattan. But, in SoHo [area South of Houston St. in Manhattan] for instance, just an area, so, you have a, several blocks which are manufacturing, and there was no demand for manufacturing in those blocks: you were left to be crazy to try manufacturing in this area of New York. There were a number of artists who were located there because there were those empty buildings. And they were not squatters–you know, they paid rent to the owner. But it was illegal. At the same time, the city realized that those artists–you know, it was embarrassing for New York City to kick out the artists from lofts–you know, former industry lofts were empty. So, they decided not to change the zoning. Instead of saying, ‘Well, this area is excellent for housing; why don’t we allow housing to be built there?’ They say, ‘Those artists, the most trades that they work there, they will have to send a portfolio of their work to the city. It’s still there, by the way, if you want to apply yourself as an artist in New York–I think my book gives the website where you can apply as an artist. And, so, they will send their portfolio. The city will decide if they are bonafide artists. And therefore, in the regulation itself it says, ‘Certified artists will be assimilated to a small manufacturer, and therefore will be allowed to live and work in this area.’ So, this is a complete absurdity.

While this little bit of busy-body jerb-making on the part of The Great City Of New York is no doubt effective in trapping more souls in the purgatory known as “civil service,” one can’t help but lament the absurd mental and legal gymnastics required to keep cost-effective housing solutions out of The Big Apple, if also also in most of the western world’s major urban centres. The typical government “solution” of “rent-controlled apartments” is a miserable excuse for managing the problem of housing affordability. Creating “non-market housing” leads to labour market ossification because the lottery systems used to allocate homes through these shamanic divinations take months or even years to complete, meaning that new job opportunities can’t be filled by hungry new immigrantsiv effectively or efficiently. Micro-apartments, CoversA45s, OPods, and other creative, design-led, market-supported solutions to the problems of labour market flexibility and urban densification exist. The cities that succeed in the 21st and 22nd centuries will adapt thusly. Those that fail to do so are just dressing up like a Cossack, wondering why they’re missing their train.
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  1. Appearances and attire compose a subject matter surrounding identity that I’m currently having a blast exploring first-hand, but let’s not veer too far off course here. 
  2. If you’ve little yous at home, you’ll no doubt have engaged in the “debate” surrounding “co-sleeping” at some point. While some feel that it’s “too risky” to sleep beside your newborn for fear that you might roll over and crush them in your sleep, others feel that this dear proximity is “more natural” and therefore more likely to foster deeper parent-child bonds or something. All I can suggest is that you do whatever works for you. It’s your risk and your reward, and as older folks are always keen to remind you, kids don’t come with an instruction manual. Even if they did, there’d still be hundreds of variations on the theme. In the end, the “co-sleeping” debate is a religious debate, and to quote Marx, “the criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism,” meaning that the only thing left is to return to our other Wandering Jew…
  3. It’s also never been a better time to live in tight confines thanks to the broad availability of clean drinking water, indoor plumbing, electric lighting, and the rest of the modern amenities that can scarcely even be maintained by the world’s largest municipalities much less expanded cost-effectively. Or did you think that they actually cared about “global schwarming” when they made you change all your lights to LED and your toilets to low-flush smear-holes ?
  4. Including those moving from other boroughs of the same large city…