Low Income Housing for the $160,000 a Year Set

The Santa Barbara, California city council is considering building affordable housing for families making under $160,000 a year.

Now, “it’s hard to get sympathy for people making $160,000 a year if you’re down in Texas or something,” said Bill Watkins, head of the University of California, Santa Barbara, Economic Forecast Project. Any household with that kind of money is in the nosebleed section of American earners, and “most of the country would think, ‘You’re going to subsidize that person’s house? You’re kidding me.'” But in this city — where the median home price is around $1.2 million — that person needs help. And the Housing Authority of the City of Santa Barbara is about to become the rare public housing agency to assist the well-heeled along with the poor, to build shelter for those whose business cards come in designer leather cases.

So, what does it mean when a city is down to its last vacant lot and must help build housing for some of the most financially comfortable people in America? Santa Maria Mayor Larry Lavagnino can’t decide which part surprises him more, the last lot or the helping hand. His working-class city is home to a chunk of its ritzy neighbor’s displaced workforce, men and women who have been priced out of the market 75 miles south. “I can hear the water swirling” down the drain, he said of Santa Barbara’s situation. “How do you retain or recruit policemen or firemen when the median home price is $1.2 million?”

In the DC area, it’s hard to find a decent single family home under $600,000 and a nice one runs upwards of $900,000. And that’s in the exurbs. In DC proper, McLean, Bethesda, Old Town Alexandria, and Chevy Chase, they’re much higher.

Still, cops and firefighters seem to manage to find domiciles. People either move into condos or townhouses or they commute from further out. When I was trying to find statistical data for median home prices here, I found a Realtor.com national survey. This area is listed as “Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV.” West Virginia. That’s a 90 minute commute, minimum, each way to DC during off-peak times. Others drive out to Woodbridge or Stafford, Virginia or into the further reaches of Maryland, well outside of what would be considered reasonable commuting distance in most of the country.

That’s, as they say, life in the big city.

OTB roving correspondent Richard Gardner contributed to this report.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. madmatt says:

    Hell if you have to live 90 miles away from where you work then you have been priced out of the market and with an extra 4 hours of drive time each day its not much of a life in the big city because you can’t enjoy the life at all….and you probably don’t want to go explore the city on the weekends either!

  2. James Joyner says:

    Quite right. Indeed, most of the people who live that far out have no connection to the life of the city.

  3. Kirk Larsen says:

    Why stop at Stafford, Virginia? I commute into the district from Spotsylvania County, even further south. I can fully attest to the comment that such a commute means very little enjoyment of what “big city life” has to offer.

  4. Herb says:

    Every time I see the crying and whining about the “cost to live” in places like California and Washington DC, I laugh so hard, it’s hard to stay in my seat. To pay $ 600,000 to $900,000. for a house is just plain insanity, I don’t care how good your job is. I prefer life in the country where your neighbors give you a hand when needed and if there are more that three cars at the stop sign, it’s a traffic jam.
    While it’s a fact that wages are not as high as those in “The Big City”, people get by just as well as those who make a small fortune and they are mush happier and laid back. Hell, if a 3 bedroom house with three baths on 3 acres of land cost more than 180,000.00, it’s over-priced and does not sell.

    I never have seen the trade off of “big wages” for peace, quiet, and sanity as being an acceptable alternative.

  5. James Joyner says:


    It’s really just a different market dynamic here. It’s incredibly tough for a first-time buyer, to be sure, but those who have been here a few years either bought when prices were low and still enjoy those prices or have earned huge equity and traded up one or more times. Ultimately, they can retire to a golf course somewhere cheaper on a huge nestegg.

    The other problem is that it depends on what you want to do for a living. If you’re going to be a truck driver, plumber, schoolteacher, or another occupation that can be done essentially anywhere, the big city only makes sense for those who enjoy regularly going out to fine restaurants and high culture attractions. If, on the other hand, you want to be involved in national public policy, architecture, journalism, the entertainment industry, the financial trade, and certain other key occupations the cities provide 99% of the opportunity.

  6. Miracle Max says:

    In the DC area, it’s hard to find a decent single family home under $600,000

    Are you nuts? In my neighborhood — not the poorest, by far — houses are a mere $450K. I didn’t realize we were so badly off. Maybe we should ring up Al Sharpton.

  7. Miracle Max says:

    (Wheaton, MD)

  8. James Joyner says:

    Max: Not sure Wheaton really qualifies as “the DC area.” The exurbs are greatly expanding, to be sure, but that’s a pretty far piece out there.

  9. DC Loser says:

    James, prices are coming down. Check out today’s WSJ article about the cooling real estate market. A lady in Herndon, VA who wanted $1.1m for her house ended up selling it for $535,000.

    As to the question why anyone would want to live and work in a high cost area such as DC – I would agree with James that the city draws a certain crowd that likes to do “government” work. Such work is not without rewards. Most government employees and contractors make close to or over $100,000. Lawyers and some technology people make much more. I certainly can’t make what I make living in Akron.

  10. just me says:

    While where you want to live and how far you want to commute is a bit of different strokes for different folks, I admit I wouldn’t be happy with a 90 minute round trip commute, much less a one way commute.

    I am with Herb, I am much more of a country girl than a City girl.

    I think the hearts are in the right place on this, but I am no too sure the government needs to subsidize housing for people making that much money. Maybe a nice local charity, like Habitat for Humanity or something can help get them in something affordable, I just don’t think the government should be doing it.

  11. James Joyner says:

    DCL: Yep, it’s cooled a piece at least in the far exurbs. Houses out at Belmont Country Club in Ashburn that were going for $900,000 with a waiting list less than a year ago are now being heavily pitched at $650k.

    The decline has been less steep closer in. I’m out in Alexandria-Fairfax and a nice colonial is still going in the $900k-$1.2 mil range, down maybe 10% from last year. In McLean, a fixer-upper starts at $1 mil.

  12. Wayne says:

    Bottom line, a person chooses where they work. The government does not need to be subsidizing people making $160,000 a year.

  13. Stevely says:

    Big city housing and cost of living bas become insane… but of course no one is forced to live and work in DC, Boston, SFO, etc.

    The solution is: seek employment elsewhere. The charms of metro DC, such as they are, just ain’t all that charming to induce me to move from Hampton Roads.

    When the only people who can afford to live in a city are doctors, lawyers and homeless people, sooner or later the business will move to other, more reasonable locations.

  14. Herb says:


    It seems to me that those employers who are in the National Public Policy,Architecture, Journalism, entertainment, and Financial Trade arenas, are calling the shots for their employees. Is it worth working for anyone who “Tells” or “Dictates” where you will live and the Crime rate that is present in those areas because they have made the corporate decision for their location.

    If those who qualify for those “High Paying” jobs are not located or will not relocate to the location of these corporations, the employer would have to relocate to a place where the prices are more reasonable, crime is lower and life in general is better. On top of that, Corporations that are located in these high price areas would find that they to would have “Less Operating Costs” if they were located in more suitable areas.

    What it boils down to is, People choose where they want to work and live and must suffer the effects of those areas that are less suitable for living and put up with the consequences of that choice and therefore the government has no business or right to subsidize their choice. The people themselves, who live in those less desirable areas are to blame for the high prices they pay for housing, food, taxis,

    The solution for the problem is so easy: Move away from those companies who dictate where they are located and they to will move to more desirable locations due to a severe lack of a skilled workforce.

    If no is willing to make the “First Move” then everything will remain “Status Quo”

  15. James Joyner says:


    For the most part, these things are self-dictating. Washington attracts journalists and public policy types because that’s where the nation’s capital is.

    I suppose the financial center could be somewhere other than Manhattan but it kind of makes sense for it to be aggregated somewhere. Anywhere that happened would wind up being a big city.

    Some jobs also naturally gravitate around big cities. You can’t support great restaurants or the arts without a large population center.

    Now, I could probably do the kind of work I want to do anywhere given the Internet. But there are certainly more opportunities near DC, with its concentration of government, national security apparatus, think tanks, and the like. It’s also much easier to network here for that reason.

  16. Herb says:


    I understand some of what you say, but, I really dis-agree with you about the “Great Restaurants”. I live very near a small town that has one of the finest restaurants that one would want. They serve a steak that better that “Ruth Chris and many other “famous steak houses”. I have traveled many places during my working career and have had dinner at some of finest restaurants in Europe, England and South America and I would compare our little “home town” restaurant with any of them. We have a “fried Chicken” restaurant nearby where the tables are very plain, the silverware is stainless and the table cloths are gingham, but the fried chicken is without doubt the finest in the country. Along with the great chicken, there is a piano player there that plays music (Not the crap of today) and she never takes a break.
    It makes no difference what kind of food one wants, we have it right here and it’s great.

    PS: If you are evre near Batesville Indiana, Drop in to the “Sherman House” and enjoy a great steak. It will be the beat you ever ate.

  17. Miracle Max says:

    Wheaton is a 30-35 minute ride to downtown on the Red Line. I do it every day. Closer-in Silver Spring has houses of comparable cost.

    As for “most” government employees (I’m not one) making over $100K, out of 15 GS grades (which doesn’t include supervisors, political appointees, and part-time assassins), you don’t crack $100K in the D.C. area until the very last of ten steps of Grade 13. Sure that doesn’t include fringes but “most”? Really.

  18. DC Loser says:

    The average grade in DC is GS-13

  19. John Burgess says:

    DC Loser: Can you provide a cite for that “Average is GS-13” figure? In all the DC offices I’ve worked in, the average was closer to GS-9.

    When I left the Foreign Service, I also left DC to move to FL (no earned income tax is nice). But to do the work I do now–mostly my blog about Saudi Arabia and Islam–I still need to travel to DC every month or so. Embassies aren’t located in minor cities. Think tanks aren’t located there, either.

    I do think a lot of the federal government could be “decentralized”, with the bulk of the employees of most executive agencies relocated around the country. But some might just as well stay, like the Pentagon, CIA, and State.

    And there’s no reason for the Supreme Court or Congress to try and move. A huge portion of Washington’s population and jobs are tied, directly or indirectly, to Congress.

    I differ with Herb about restaurants, though. They aren’t only about food. Were that the case, I’d never have to dine out because I can cook a good dozen cuisines perfectly well, including French haute cuisine. Restaurants are also about atmosphere, trends, and being seen. Who–useful to me–is going to see me in your town or most other towns?

    I love my local restaurants and do use them. But they’re not to be confused with a really top restaurant in NYC, DC, London, Rome, Vienna, or Paris. The food in the locals may be perfectly good in terms of freshness, art, presentation, quality. But let’s not pretend they’re the same. Hell, if I lived in Chicago, I couldn’t even get fois gras!

  20. Herb says:

    John BUrgess:

    Am I to understand that the “fine restaurants” in NYC, DC and Chicago are an ego trip and the quality of the food doesn’t count for much.

    If that’s the case, then an ego trip is not an acceptable excuse for complaining about high prices.

    As PT Barnum once said: “There is one born every minute”

  21. DC Loser says:



    This is 2004 data. I misspoke about “average” grade, when I meant “median” grade. You can see GS-13s are by far the larges group in the DC area. I’ll admit I’m off on the average or mean salary, but it’s still up there. Don’t forget many of these people are in dual income households, so many of them are already above $100k in combined income.

  22. John Burgess says:

    DCLoser: Thanks. But I’m not quite as taken by “dual income” factors. First because I was always the sole income-earner in my own household and second because a lot of the people I worked with were either single parents or people who had unemployable spouses. Dual-income may indeed be the norm for higher grades; it doesn’t appear to be for the lower grades.

    Herb: I think “ego trip” is a really inaccurate term.

    Sure, the quality of food is important, but it’s not the only factor.

    “Good restaurants” (i.e., trendy, unique atmosphere, new ways of doing old stuff) have an appeal that goes beyond personal esthetics. As places where business is done–again, directly or indirectly–they have intrinsic value to those who can profit by being in them.

    Your complaint might apply better to night clubs (which I don’t habituate), but even there it’s not always a safe assumption. In some places–Japan, China, Taiwan leap instantly to mind–business is done in the “right” nightclubs, not any old nightclub.

    Unless you’re in a one stoplight town, I can’t imagine that there’s not a stratification of places to be seen in, as well as places never to be seen in. So maybe you get to drop a zero at the end of the prices… the principle is the same.

  23. DC Loser says:

    And don’t forget variety of restaurants. I’m sure Herb’s steak and fried chicken places are fine dining establishments, but where am I going to go if I get a hankering for authentic Chinese, Vietnamese, Ethiopian, Jewish, etc…..?