Better to let immigrants buy homes than to demolish them

at 12:44 PM ET, 10/20/2011

America has a problem: We’ve got too many houses and not enough people with the money or inclination to buy them. So we need one of two things: either fewer houses, or more people who have the means and the desire to buy a house.

Some banks are trying to go the “fewer houses” route. They’re paying to demolish vacant properties. But Sens. Chuck Schumer and Mike Lee have a better idea: There are people with the money and desire to buy a house in America who aren’t currently allowed to live in America. Why not get them over here and let them buy a home?


(Nati Harnik - AP)
The theory is sound: Offer visas to immigrants willing to buy homes in the U.S. But the policy is not: Immigrants can get only “residence visa,” so they would not be able to work, and they have to purchase at least $500,000 in homes to qualify.

As Matt Yglesias points out, “the Census Bureau says the median value of owner occupied housing in the United States is around $185,000.” The median value of unoccupied housing is likely lower. If we want immigrants purchasing our $500,000 McMansions, there’s no reason we don’t want them purchasing our $250,000 townhouses. And once they’re here, we want them to work.

Obviously, the politics of this are tough: The American people are ambivalent about immigration and concerned about competition for scarce jobs. But the economics are clear: If we had immigrants with disposable income and skills, that would help create the sort of demand — both for housing and for other goods — that would create jobs. And we wouldn’t have to knock down so many perfectly good homes.

Update: Brian Fallon, spokesman for Sen. Chuck Schumer, e-mails:

This policy doesn’t just allow you to buy McMansions worth at least $500k. We let you buy homes as low-priced as $250k. But the TOTAL investment needs to be at least $500k. So you could buy a $250k home and two $125k condos, theoretically.
The reason why the total investment needs to be this high is so that we don’t undermine other visa programs, like EB-5, which lets an individual come to the U.S. if they make an investment of at least $500k in a way that creates at least 10 jobs. We don’t want to undermine that program by making it possible for a wealthy foreign national to enter the U.S. more “cheaply” by buying a home than they would if they created a job-producing business.

True! I tried to nod at this by writing “they have to purchase at least $500,000 in homes to qualify,” but Fallon is right: I should have been clearer. But this just goes, I think, to underscore how inane our immigration policies are. Are we really in a position right now to turn away an immigrant who will create five jobs? Or buy one $270,000 home in an area with a high vacancy rate?

 
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