Marohn: “The core cognitive dissonance in our affordable housing conversation.”


A short and insightful piece follows, in which Charles Marohn doesn’t pretend to have all the answers.

As with many housing issues, I don’t have a clear three-step plan to make everything work for everyone. Similar to the latest college admissions scandal, it seems that at least part of the conversation needs to acknowledge that even if we truly believe in some vision for an ideal society—whether that includes ample affordable housing or fair college admissions standards or something else entirely—when it comes down to it, our vision for our personal happiness is often at odds with our theoretical utopia. Put another way, individually, we have a vested interest in one approach (rising prices and growth), but collectively, we express an interest in the opposite (broader affordability and housing stability).

In conclusion …

If we first make that acknowledgement, we can start to discuss a transition between a housing market dominated by our current distorted craziness and one that is more responsive to human needs.

Making this or any other acknowledgement as a preface to a genuine discussion?

Whether it’s about affordable housing, streets and roads or virtually any other civic topic in New Albany, City Hall typically doesn’t do public acknowedgements, and accordingly, real public discussions seldom occur. We’re not having these discussions because they are at odds with the secretive goals of the city’s administration.

Perhaps this explains the 800-lb gorilla perched on the dresser during recent chats about the future redevelopment of Colonial Manor.

Noting that I’m very much in favor of the grassroots effort to define a future for the property, and also that the organizers of this effort have done incredible work in standing against the usual Jeff Gahan “fix is in” approach to public “input,” there has been some dissonance involved quite beyond City Hall’s childish petulance at not having its way.

Specifically, neighborhood activists have openly dismissed any notion of the Colonial Manor acreage being used for housing. I believe this owes to a number of assumptions, some valid (the New Albany Housing Authority’s recent spending spree) and others not so much (density fears).

However, Gahan himself surely triggered the backlash when he lofted a short-lived trial balloon about housing in a comment to the Jeffersonville newspaper on March 12.

“We will encourage residential and mixed use. We know the city of New Albany needs all types of housing,” Gahan said.

The grassroots reaction to this statement was to read the word “affordable” as an adjective preceding “residential”; to assume “affordable” was code for “public housing,” and to object not only to affordable/public housing, but also any housing at all on the site — how many speakers at last week’s listening event referred to there being “too much” density already?

Even a stopped clock is right twice a day — and, for once, Gahan wasn’t full of flatulence when he mentioned the desirability of mixed use, including residential. Of course, the devil in those details center on the level of municipal subsidy to campaign donors, but still, it was not an outrageous statement to make.

Obviously Gahan said nothing about this potential residential use being “affordable,” which would contradict his longstanding preference for “luxury” in all forms, but the spectre of NAHA scattered site housing was enough to produce pushback, and correspondingly, redevelopment director Josh Staten made sure everyone knew that NAHA wouldn’t be a part of the Colonial Manor picture.

For the moment it’s moot, with Gahan publicly pouting and his Democratic Party stooges whining on social media about their inability to cope in a world where city council takes its fiduciary responsibilities seriously and doesn’t settle for the Phipps Rubber Stamp.

But I believe Marohn’s piece adds depth to the Colonial Manor discussion — and happily at least we’re having a discussion, contrary to Gahan’s pathological need to micro-manage any such process behind closed doors.

Who Benefits From Lower Housing Prices?, by Charles Marohn (Strong Towns)

 … I’m being brutally honest (and a little vulnerable) here in order to make a difficult point about another public issue that can quickly become personal: affordable housing. Because here’s another brutal truth: in our cities today, nobody in a position to seriously impact the affordability of housing ever benefits from housing prices becoming affordable. In fact, the opposite holds true: most every individual or organization in a position to lower housing prices would be harmed by such a result.


A policy approach that lowers home prices is going to run into a lot of structural resistance. And that’s the core cognitive dissonance in our affordable housing conversation: we want housing to somehow become more affordable without prices actually going down. Stated another way, we want people to somehow be able to afford housing while housing itself remains largely unaffordable.