I had an interesting (well, to me) thought the other day while driving through a somewhat poor neighborhood not far from my home. It seems to me that a lot of problems in this country are related to how widely separated the wealth classes are, and not just in monetary terms, but in geographical as well. If you live in a gated community, all your neighbors are wealthy, and your only knowledge of folks in poverty is reading the police reports in the local paper or seeing the shady characters who hang out on street corners on your way home from the opera, you are not going to think highly of the poor. You may come to think they’re all just lazy, that they could easily get themselves out of the ghetto if they really just put their minds to it, that they’re all just criminals who deserve to be mistreated by the police and imprisoned for long terms for petty offenses because they were probably guilty of something.
And if you grew up in a poor neighborhood, watched your mother kill herself with work to feed you and your brother because your dad left years ago, saw friends go to jail (or get murdered) for the crime of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and your only interaction with wealthy people is seeing them go on TV and call you a lazy bum or come into the Burger King where you work and treat you like crap, you might think them entitled pricks who deserve to pay outrageous taxes or even get robbed on the streets.
Obviously these are extreme positions. Rich people aren’t all entitled pricks, although a few of them are. Poor people aren’t lazy criminals, even though a few of them are. But they simply don’t interact enough in real life to see past the extremes that they read and see every day. I think we need to get these folks together, living side by side. This isn’t just theory, it really does work in practice, even on a small scale: I’ve known relatively well-off people who have purchased homes in awfully dangerous inner city communities, and they make friends with their poorer neighbors and everybody gets along quite nicely. I think we just need to see more of this.
How to do it? Well, there are a lot of ways. We could simply pass a law that says every McMansion has to have a rent-controlled apartment building next to it, and pass strict laws making sure that those apartments are taken up by truly low-income people instead of just rich folks looking to save a buck, although obviously having rich folks and poor folks living in the same building would be a pretty grand idea as well. Unfortunately we can’t really knock down the existing mansions and apartment buildings and rebuild them to align with our ideals.
The better option, I think, is to tie property taxes to the average value of homes in the community. A guy who buys a million-dollar house out in the country surrounded by other million-dollar houses, well, he pays a property tax rate based on that average million-dollar value. The guy who buys (or builds) a million-dollar house downtown surrounded by $150,000 row-homes, he pays a much lower amount of taxes. It’d have to be an awfully strong tax, of course; plenty of people would be willing to pay an increased tax rate to not live in an area they believe is dangerous. Also, property taxes are currently so low (I think in my area they should be at least doubled, with that extra money going straight to schools, libraries, and community centers) that it wouldn’t put much of a dent in any really wealthy person’s pocketbook. It might also be worth offering extra tax rebates based on a community’s average income, or the number of people in it who use government assistance. We’d also have to make sure that the large amounts of money collected on property taxes in wealthy areas got spent in the areas that had very little tax collected, which might be a challenge. It might also be worth offering special mortgage rates on homes purchased in poorer areas.
I think if we could just get people living near each other and participating in each other’s success, there really would be a rising tide to lift all boats. So tell me: why wouldn’t this work?