Sunday, December 2, 2007

affordable housing: dirty word

Dear Editor, December 2, 2007

In recent years, I have noticed in Madison a swing away from the most deleterious aspects of suburban life. Perhaps due to influence from New York City, cultural life – whether it is the quality of the Shoreline Times writing or the presence of a farmer’s market or writing group -- is flourishing. The excellent article (Nov. 28) on builder and designer Chris Dowler was yet another indication of a shift in thinking about suburban life. I applaud Mr. Dowler’s attempt to remove the stigma from the term “high density.”

If “density” has been, in Dowler’s words, a “four letter word,” then the term “affordable housing” must be considered outright blasphemy. Ever since I was quite young, I was aware that this term was a code for something bigger. Indeed, I now see that the negative interpretation of “affordable housing” lies at the very heart of what a suburb is.

What is a town? A town is a place where people of different classes live. What is a suburb? A suburb is a place where people of one social class are allowed to live. Or, more accurately, it is a place where people below a certain income threshold are excluded by legal and regulatory means, such as rules on minimum lot size.

Madison is a suburb which was once a town. The physical remains of the town are carefully preserved, but the heart that made this place a town is gone. One can drive along older roads in Madison and see small houses on small lots, remnants of a time when Madison was still a town, when having a modest income was not grounds for exclusion.

I would like to challenge the post-1950s notion that the presence of working class people is a threat to quality of life or even to property values. After all, these wage workers care for us and our loved ones when sick, cook for us, and paint our nails. Are they not fit to live near us? Are their children not deserving of good education? I support the building of affordable housing in Madison. In this era when racial biases are eroding, we ought not to let class prejudice go unchallenged. Let’s make Madison a town once again.

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