At yesterday’s meeting of the the Wichita City Council, a matter was presented to the council that provided an illustration of basic economic principles that are foreign to the council.
A condominium homeowners association asked for special assessment tax financing to make repairs to the building. My remarks that I delivered at the meeting were based on my post In Wichita, waiving guidelines makes for bad policy.
David M. Bryan, a Wichita attorney and resident of the building, represented the the homeowners association that is asking for the special assessment financing. He spoke after I did. His wife accompanied him to the podium.
Bryan’s case for help was based on factors that — besides being irrelevant — show just what a fiasco this matter is. It also illustrates just how selfish these condominium owners are in expecting the city to bail them out of their problem.
First, he says that he and the other condo owners represent one of the goals of downtown redevelopment. “We all took that leap of faith and bought the lofts” when the building was still under construction.
He didn’t know what tuckpointing was when he moved in to this building, and he and the other residents didn’t know that this [the need for repair] was going to happen.
He said that he thinks the building represents a sound and good investment in downtown redevelopment, and that the building is part of what the city council wants to accomplish.
Conventional financing for these repairs would, Bryan said, require personal guarantees by all residents, and that would prevent the individual units from being sold unless the entire loan was paid off.
(In my testimony, I made the point that the amount that each condominium owner needs to pay to fix the building is on the order of what it would cost to paint a conventional house of the same value as these units. There’s also a defect in the ownership structure of this building if there is no way to pay for repairs like the present situation, as things like this are foreseeable.)
Council member Paul Gray, speaking from the bench, expressed concern that approval of this request sets a precedent for other condominium buildings in Wichita to make the same request that this building has made.
In the end, council member Lavonta Williams made the motion to approve the financing. All members except Gray voted for it. Vice-Mayor Jim Skelton was not present.
After the council voted, Mrs. Bryan gave Wichita economic development director Allen Bell a pat on the back, and Bell and Mr. Bryan shared a congratulatory handshake. You can see these things by attending the meetings in person.
It appears that the city’s desire for downtown redevelopment is an unsustainable goal that can’t be maintained without continued subsidy. The message is this: When a downtown development gets in financial trouble, make a beeline to city hall. This was the case last year when the Warren Theater received a no- and low-interest loan from the city, propping up the city’s ill-conceived investment in a TIF district benefiting that theater.
Recently we learned that rehabilitation of a downtown hotel is on hold because historic tax credits — that is, outright gifts to developers — are on hold because the state can’t afford to grant them.
Now, buildings that need small repairs that can be deemed to be part of the city’s plan for downtown redevelopment are eligible for special assessment financing.
I don’t think the council is aware of the corrosive effect of these special favors. No news media reported this story. It is a small amount of money that is involved in this case. This matter is emblematic, however, of an activist city council and city staff who believe they can direct economic investment in Wichita better than its citizens can on their own.
While listening to Bryan make his case, I thought this is an illustration of the lessons Henry Hazlitt taught us in his classic work Economics in One Lesson. The first chapter may be read at One Lesson, which I excerpt here:
Economics is haunted by more fallacies than any other study known to man. This is no accident. The inherent difficulties of the subject would be great enough in any case, but they are multiplied a thousandfold by a factor that is insignificant in, say, physics, mathematics, or medicine — the special pleading of selfish interests.
While every group has certain economic interests identical with those of all groups, every group has also, as we shall see, interests antagonistic to those of all other groups. While certain public policies would in the long run benefit everybody, other policies would benefit one group only at the expense of all other groups. …
In addition to these endless pleadings of self-interest, there is a second main factor that spawns new economic fallacies every day. This is the persistent tendency of men to see only the immediate effects of a given policy, or its effects only on a special group, and to neglect to inquire what the long-run effects of that policy will be not only on that special group but on all groups.