Creating More Bad Jobs

Lydia DePillis writes about an effort to build a 7–11 on H Street that’s being resisted by the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission nominally on the grounds that the fried chicken they sell at 7–11 leads to too many bones being scattered around:

The real issue, says committee chairman Drew Ronneberg, is whether a 7–11 is a grocery store (as it purports to be) or a fast food establishment, which is restricted under the H Street Neighborhood Commercial Overlay.

It looks like you’re walking into a KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, but they’re all under one roof,” he explains. Asking for a break on the chicken bone front is a compromise position.

Yum Brands combo restaurants aren’t especially rare or problematic in my view, but I was interested to learn about the general existence of this restriction. The rule (which you can look up here) is a generalized restriction on takeout and delivery operations, whether chain or otherwise, but it also allows for the granting of a “special exception” to especially favored business operations.

At any rate, I can see why people might favor a rule like this. But something that comes to mind naturally is to wonder how many people who live in the area actually know that any such rule exists? My guess is “not many,” which is often the case with this sort of thing, which I think is a problem. Democracy is great, rule by a handful of busybodies who are doing all kinds of things most people never hear about is not so great.

The other is that I wish there were more acknowledgment of the tradeoffs involved. We’re in the midst of a mayor’s campaign largely focused on the question of why the economic plight of low-skill workers living east of the Anacostia River is so severe. Even the incumbent mayor’s fans tend to agree that the problem is really dire, but people tend to say — indeed, I think I’ve even said myself — that sky-high unemployment in Ward 8 isn’t amenable to a municipal solution. But that’s not really true. There are lots of vacant store fronts on H Street. I’m sure that at least some of them would be filled by fast food restaurants if they were allowed to do so as a matter of right. And more fast food restaurants is exactly the sort of thing that would create more employment opportunities for the city’s incumbent poorest residents.

Are these good jobs? Of course not. But half the problem with DC’s uneven economic development is that too many of the jobs are good jobs. The people in need of work can’t get jobs as lawyers or doctors or architects or lobbyists or what have you, and expansion of the DC “good jobs” sector mostly serves to merely draw new prosperous residents into the city. Of course more prosperous residents ought to create service jobs available to low-skill unemployed people. But things like more takeout and delivery joints is precisely the mechanism through which that could happen. Maybe preserving a certain kind of neighborhood atmosphere is so important that it’s worth stifling low-end job creation. But there’s a cost, and people should think about it.