[This post was originally published on the blog Better Institutions]
The people who live in coastal urban cities tend to be a pretty liberal bunch. We’re leading the country on minimum wage laws, paid sick leave, climate change mitigation, and a host of other important issues. We care deeply about equality of opportunity, and we’re willing to invest our time and money to advance that effort—even if the people we help don’t always look like us or come from the same neighborhood, state, or even country. I’m proud to count myself among their number.
And then we turn to housing. Maybe it’s just because we’re doing great on so many other fronts, but when I look at our inability to solve the housing crisis in places like San Francisco, New York, and Washington, D.C., I’m left feeling nothing but depression and hopelessness. It’s all the more frustrating because unaffordable housing might be the most important economic problem facing residents of liberal U.S. cities, and we’re perfectly, comprehensively, and unmistakably blowing it.
The causes of this failure are too numerous to ever fully enumerate in a single blog post, and, admittedly, some are out of the hands of cities themselves. But I don’t want to be too forgiving—state and federal policy plays a role, for example, but liberal U.S. cities are also typically located in liberal U.S. states, and federal policy applies equally to all, including the cities that have managed to remain affordable. There’s also the impact of global capitalism on a few world class cities, but it’s hard to feel genuine pity for places where foreign investors are willing to dump billions of dollars. Boo-hoo.
At it’s heart this is a problem of liberal governance and/or policy, and we need to face it head on. We can’t blame this on someone else. It’s our fault. There really is something inherently flawed in the way we’ve approached housing policy for the past several decades (at least), and I would argue that it comes down to a kind of cognitive dissonance on three key issues. In the following ways, our policies just don’t align with our stated ideology:
|Liberal Ideology||Liberal City Policy|
|We are pro-environment…||…but anti-growth and density|
|We are pro-immigration…||…but anti-migration|
|We are pro-equity…||…but anti-housing|
Quick disclaimer: “Liberals” are not a monolithic group, and these views won’t be representative of every individual who identifies as liberal. That said, in my experience they are fairly representative of many if not most liberal city residents that I have met and discussed housing policy with. Your mileage may vary—though I doubt it will by much.
With that disclaimer out of the way, I’d like to get into some detail on these three policy/ideology disconnects, and why they’re so harmful to the goal of broad-based affordability in our cities.
Cities have a reputation as dirty places. All those people, buildings, cars, pavement—it’s an environmental tragedy, right? Many well-meaning liberals seem to have taken that view to heart, and for decades have wielded environmental protection laws to keep buildings small and relatively spread out, and populations as low as possible—all in the name of preserving the environment.
But on a per-person basis, dense urban centers absolutely crush the suburbs on environmental-friendliness. We have smaller homes, often with shared walls, floors, and/or ceilings, all of which helps to reduce heating and cooling costs. We’re more likely to walk, bike, or take transit when we get around. And we share may public amenities, like parks, libraries, and roads, with many more of our neighbors. The map below is just one example of the environmental impact of dense housing, showing just how stark the difference in household carbon emissions is between the dense boroughs of New York City and the suburban communities that surround it.
The real problem here is that housing is never just a question of “build” or “don’t build.” It’s “build here” or “build somewhere else.”And if you live in a coastal U.S. city, somewhere else is usually way worse for the environment. People don’t disappear just because they can’t move to our cities; they move to the suburbs of Texas, where housing continues to be produced in abundance and, as a result, costs have stayed reasonably low.
Opposing development on behalf of the environment is essentially “greenwashing,” and we need to acknowledge it for the lie that it is. It’s an environmental crime, not a triumph. We don’t celebrate the environment by moving into its midst and paving it over.
In many metro areas, household emissions in the suburbs are roughly double those of city households. Another way of putting that: In terms of environmental impact, each time we turn away a person from our green, efficient cities, we’re effectively cloning them and shipping them off to the suburbs of Texas to do twice as much harm.
Sticking with the “global thinking” theme, consider the different approaches that liberals take to immigration into our country versus migration into our cities.
On the one hand we offer our full-throated support for liberalizing federal immigration laws and creating paths to citizenship for undocumented workers. We do so because we recognize that immigrants add value to our country, that at our core we are a country of immigrants and this is a source of strength and resilience, and that most immigrants are simply moving here in search of greater opportunity, which we can all appreciate.
On the other hand, when a person wants to move to any of our thriving coastal cities in search of greater opportunity—whether they’re citizens or not, rich or poor, immigrant or migrant—well sorry, pal, but we’re all full up. We understand that the United States is a symbol of hope and aspiration for people around the world, and we welcome immigrants to our shores with open arms, but only so far as the borders of our city. If they want past this border, they’re gonna have to earn enough to displace a poor person, because we’re damned well not building any new housing for them to live in.
The timing is ironic, in a way. As we look with scorn upon Donald Trump and his plan to build an impenetrable wall between the U.S. and Mexico, we’ve erected a wall around our cities—no less effective for its invisibility—to protect existing residents from the invasion of “outsiders.” Our country is open, but our cities are full.
To be clear, none of this is intended to equate the challenges faced by new residents (many of whom contribute to gentrification, if unwittingly and unwillingly) to those of poor immigrants or families at risk of displacement in coastal U.S. cities. The issue is that we’re pitting new residents against old ones when 90% of the problem could be resolved by simply building enough new housing to accommodate all comers.
We’ve allowed mostly wealthy, mostly white homeowners to dictate our future and leave us fighting over the scraps of the housing market, even as their homes each increase in value by tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. We debate how to raise a few billion dollars for affordable housing on the backs of new residents—enough to build a couple thousand low income homes, maybe—while the value of single-family homes in Los Angeles County alone have increased by $500 billion over the past 25 years.
We’ve been convinced that the built environment—not the people who inhabit it—is what makes a community; that neighborhood integrity is about the character of buildings, not that of our neighbors. This is not a liberal ideal. Rather than turn these people away, we need to recognize that new residents are just people like us, looking for a better life and new opportunities. Adding enough new homes so that they can find somewhere to live is a very small ask. We have to stop acting as though the subjective value of “neighborhood character” (which has always been and will always be a moving target) is of equal importance to the hard economic realities of unaffordable housing, inequity of opportunity, and homelessness. The latter issues are clearly of greater importance, and if you’re willing to sacrifice them at the altar of “neighborhood character” then you need to take a moment and seriously question your commitment to progressive, inclusive values.
Some of you may remember the hub-bub in 2014 over Thomas Piketty’s book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” which examined wealth inequality in Europe and the U.S. over the past few centuries. It was an absolute blockbuster (for an economics book), showing that the share of income coming from returns on capital was increasing over time, which was bad news for those of us who don’t earn most of our money on stocks, property, or other capital investments (i.e., most of us). It was a rallying cry for liberals around the developed world.
What you may not have heard about was the critique of Piketty’s work by a 26-year-old MIT graduate student named Matthew Rognlie, who basically said that the issue isn’t so much capital in a general sense, but housing in particular. In other words, the growing value of housing relative to other assets (as well as labor income) is responsible for almost 100 percent of increasing wealth inequality in the Western world. The below chart shows the share of income from capital, with and without housing included.
The reason housing is growing as a share of capital income is because housing has become so much more expensive over the last few decades, especially in coastal U.S. cities. Home and property owners are raking it in. We have a system in which relatively affluent residents in our cities each own a hugely valuable capital asset—their land and the home that it sits upon—which is appreciating at nearly double-digit rates each year, while everyone else just gets to pay more for rent, forever. So long as housing production and vacancies stay low, that trend will continue. There is a wealth inequality crisis afoot, and liberal cities are its greatest perpetrator. San Francisco is the vanguard of this movement: the most liberal city in the U.S., and one in which it is nearly impossible to afford unless you are very rich (enough to afford $3,000/month rents or $1 million homes) or very poor (and therefore eligible for a small number of subsidized housing units). It’s a “poor door” masquerading as a city, and the rest of us are on the same trajectory.
The outcomes of our housing policies fly in the face of our ideology. For those in need, we support providing supplementary income, health insurance, educational support, and other social welfare programs—and then we erase their value by making our cities too expensive for those most in need of these benefits. Either low income residents can’t afford to live in the city at all, or the cost of housing is so high that the value of the benefits is exceeded by the added cost of rent.
By doing essentially nothing but letting things happen, conservative America is kicking our ass at providing opportunities for low income and working classes to build wealth and get ahead. Cities like Dallas, Phoenix, and Atlanta have managed to stay affordable by simply allowing housing to continue to be built as their populations grow, and the result is that people keep moving there. As someone in his early 30s who is wondering how I’ll ever be able to buy a home and build wealth for myself, I see the appeal. And that sucks, because I have no interest in living in any of those places. There will always be a premium to be paid for living in a great city, but the premium in our coastal cities is far beyond reason.
For those earning in the $30,000-$60,000/year range, owning a home in a place like Los Angeles or New York is completely out of the question. All these households have to look forward to is to either find a rent controlled unit and hold onto it until they die, or forever face the uncertainty of a rental market where rates can increase 2, 3, even 5 times faster than their incomes. And good luck saving any money for retirement in the meantime. These are not real options; they’re an ultimatum.
So, this is the paradise we’ve built across the liberal cities of the United States. Are we proud? I’m not. We’ve walled off our cities to those of lesser and greater means, making pathetic, often subtly racist or classist arguments about “character” and “culture.” We’ve destroyed any possible opportunity for low income and working class households to build wealth in the same way as their affluent neighbors, or displaced the poor households so that they’re no longer neighbors at all. We’ve enabled the sprawling environmental destruction of cities like Phoenix or Las Vegas by failing to provide alternative, more desirable sites for new housing. We have failed, abjectly—and we’re too blinded by our own biases to change the course.
But hey, at least our hearts are in the right place.
hcat saysJanuary 28, 2017 at 6:17 pm
I love you guys.
Brosef_87 saysJanuary 30, 2017 at 11:09 am
Nice article. I really appreciated the perspective contrasting the wall, because it’s good to get that type of refresh every now and then. Conservative areas are indeed kicking coastal cities’ butts but those areas are more typically rural and spread out and with more space to build. New homebuyers in those areas are often purchasing suburban homes with their own walled off neighborhoods.
As I always do when I read a well-written article proposing good ideas, I ask, what can I/we do to rectify this situation? Does the author have any targeted recommendations to offer readers to go forward with? I would like to know.
RomanP saysJanuary 30, 2017 at 1:57 pm
Ice cold analysis. “Liberal in the streets, NIMBY in the sheets.”
Mary Pustejovsky saysJanuary 30, 2017 at 2:57 pm
Get involved in your local housing politics. Speak out FOR more housing when the only voices that your city hears are “against”.
JustJake saysJanuary 30, 2017 at 3:53 pm
The Berkeley CoolClimate map isn’t any sort of actual measurement, it’s a extrapolation meant to further the agenda of the California Air Resources Board. Easy to pre-define and pigeon hole lifestyle choices, isn’t it?
430MLK saysJanuary 30, 2017 at 3:59 pm
Great piece. There is no doubt that, when it concerns urban housing issues, this is a decidedly progressive problem. (I use progressive in place of liberal, as this seems to be the Dem-brand du jour). My own sense is that the super-gentrification of what were, in the 70s, bankrupt urban neighborhoods is tied more to the growth of cities as hubs of capital (a post-fordist outcome)–and less as strictly low income or affordable new construction. The progressive ideology that wealth (and culture and creativity and diversity and…) would be had by traveling to cities and paying for a college education, creates an environment that has inflated most city’s value.
Predominantly, this inflation has occurred in coastal cities, but I think it happens all over–including southern and midwestern cities whose main growth (unlike coastal cities) took place during the suburbanization era. Atlanta, Houston–even my mid-size city in the “northern south”–all have affordablity problems that hare excabertated by the over-attention they receive in the media, local/state/federal subsidies, academic literature, and both non-profit and for-profit sectors. (I stray from the “unintended gentrifiers” suggestion you make about empowered newcomers…most that I encounter celebrate their creative uplifting of urban neighborhoods.)
One way around this–beyond organizing vocally and not cutting deals with Democrats in office–is to excercise your ability to migrate. The author states both that the suburbs represent greenfield development and that moving away from coastal cities is not an option (just like, one assumes, immigration is not a preferred option for many immigrants). But why not migrate? Why contribute to the outsize demand on coastal cities? Sure, that’s where many jobs are–a few of which pay enough to enable a life–but other options do abound, particularly for the semi-empowered. The suburbs–just like the Brooklyn suburbs of yesteryear–can be urbanized (they already are doing this), and non-coastal cities can also become more dense and supply opportunity.
ATL Urbanist saysJanuary 31, 2017 at 9:46 am
“By doing essentially nothing but letting things happen, conservative America is kicking our ass at providing opportunities for low income and working classes to build wealth and get ahead. Cities like Dallas, Phoenix, and Atlanta have managed to stay affordable by simply allowing housing to continue to be built as their populations grow, and the result is that people keep moving there.”
But…Atlanta is not kicking anyone’s ass when it comes to allowing lower income groups to build wealth and get ahead. We’re the poster child for low-income mobility and we have the studies to prove it.
emlbee saysJanuary 31, 2017 at 12:00 pm
I don’t think the wealthy liberals in these cities see what they’re doing. They just don’t know the people their attitudes and policies effect or know how it could be different. I think people just believe it’s market forces and that’s all.
But I see this on a smaller scale in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the liberal college town I live in. It is becoming like these larger liberal cities. Low income housing is voted down, rents and home prices are rising, the poorer people in the area live in Ypsilanti, an adjacent city with a higher crime rate, and commute to Ann Arbor for work. Because the scale of the situation is so small, it doesn’t seem like a terrible hardship; the commute is short. But it’s hard to have good services and infrastructure in Ypsilanti due to the low tax base, whereas Ann Arbor is overflowing with wealth.
Affen_Theater saysJanuary 31, 2017 at 5:59 pm
Isn’t the map based on “average annual carbon emissions per household”? … And if not, what then (along with references please)? Thanks!
JustJake saysJanuary 31, 2017 at 6:08 pm
Straight from the horses mouth: using “surveys” “we developed econometric models of demand for energy, transportation, food, goods, and services that were used to derive”
It’s a modeled calculation. It’s not a measurement of any reality.
Hidden Name saysFebruary 2, 2017 at 2:37 am
Why is so little done to support the tenuous assumptions this article is based on? Namely that Atlanta and Houston are conservative particularly because of how their state voted. I just don’t see how you spend a whole article talking about city policy, then base your generalizations primarily on the state. There’s casual discussion that Houston has more permissive housing that LA, but no comprehensive or numerical approximation of an index of housing policy presented.
Additionally, with so much talk about and appreciate for issues related to density, there’s no mention of the relative density of cities, or whether these figures are based on city centers, include suburban areas or even rural areas as some areas are drawn — some cities are essentially giant suburban sprawls, while others are heavily concentrated.
There’s also not even mention of the baseline of affordability in different cities. Surely the change in affordability from 2006-2013 is interesting and relevant, but nobody believes rents and incomes are entirely divorced. If you believe they are tied together even partially, you need to know the overall rate, not just the change — it’s possible that Miami has a stagnant ratio because it’s already maximally burdensome, etc.
To an extent, you are preaching to the choir for me — I had the same view against restrictive housing policy in NYC, LA, etc. before I even started reading the article. Maybe because I was already familiar with the message though, I gained little from the facts and figures presented — the backing for the message presented seemed extremely weak.
H Richard Collins saysFebruary 16, 2017 at 10:32 am
Build on all this empty land on the SF Bay peninsula: https://www.google.com/maps/place/San+Francisco,+CAemail@example.com,-122.4395474,24151m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m5!3m4!1s0x80859a6d00690021:0x4a501367f076adff!8m2!3d37.7707147!4d-122.409668
Go to the satellite view
Dedangelo saysMarch 7, 2017 at 8:30 pm
Overall good critique with one exception. I’d hesitate before naming Phoenix as some kind of affordable housing vanguard. Climate change – made worse via destruction of a fragile desert ecosystem, exacerbating the heat island effect in favor of that $200,000 stucco shack in the ‘burbs – is making the place unlivable. After 32 years, I left for Denver 3 years ago just to get out of the blast furnace (to say nothing of the politics). The week I left, it was 122 degrees.
Theodore saysMarch 31, 2017 at 11:17 pm
That’s not a great choice. The already developed land has room for many multiples of the current population, if only the zoning allowed it and the planning process made it possible to do so. We don’t need to expand in area to build more housing. In the Bay Area, the consensus is that urban sprawl is a bad thing, so we would rather not do that.
The empty land is not empty. To develop there, we would need to tear down the trees and pave over the land, reducing the drainage and increasing the chance of floods. In the Bay Area, the consensus is that climate change is a bad thing caused by humans, so we would rather not do that.
It’s quite some distance from the existing transit lines, so we would suffer even more traffic and large expenses to bring the trains there.
The big public relations problem is that too many people cannot think of life without a car. We need to convince them that we don’t need cars, so we can build more housing without destroying any more wilderness anywhere.
Standard Salvage saysFebruary 13, 2018 at 12:04 pm
Capitalism is not fair. Sorry….
hikertom saysFebruary 14, 2018 at 6:55 pm
Housing cost is a function of supply and demand. There is more competition for housing in the more desirable cities, which drives up prices.