Scott Alexander, a West Coast blogger, has written a post that has received a lot of buzz, called “Steelmanning the NIMBYs”; apparently, “steelmanning” is the opposite of “straw manning”; that is, it involves making the best possible case for an argument you don’t really support. There have been so many comments to this post that I don’t feel the need to respond to every point (and many of the points are very San Francisco-specific). But here are a few points, each of which begin with a quote from Alexander:
- “Even in the best case scenario, increased housing supply will just make apartments slightly more affordable.” But the post states that if housing supply increases by the admittedly ambitious 2.5 percent a year, the monthly rent for a one bedroom San Francisco apartment will go down from $3500 to $2100- a forty percent decrease. Moreover, in looking at the effects of new supply it isn’t enough to compare the benefits of reform to the status quo, because it is quite possible that if we continue “business as usual” policies rents will keep rising. So instead of comparing $2100 to the current rent, maybe we should compare it to whatever the rent will be if San Francisco continues along its current path (which I am guessing is more than $3500).
- “If your theory predicts that turning a city into Manhattan will make rents plummet, then consider that turning Manhattan into Manhattan made rents much worse, and so maybe your theory is wrong.” This is another version of the theory that density causes rent to rise. I have responded to that argument here. (Brief summary: Manhattan has gotten LESS dense over time, so if density was bad for rent, Manhattan should be a bargain now!)
- “And I have heard YIMBYs counter that if people don’t want to live in an urban environment, they shouldn’t have bought a house in a city. But they kind of didn’t. They bought a house in a medium-density suburb, then some other people came and said “No, this has to be a city”. In other words, suburbanites (and by implication, city residents who are also NIMBYs) relied on the status quo and therefore their preferences should be enforced. Although the reliance argument has some emotional power, it has a few flaws:
- the reliance argument is a self-fulfilling prophecy; the zoning that the reliance argument justifies itself creates the reliance. If you had less zoning, people would be less likely to rely on the status quo.
- it proves too much. If my reliance on my neighborhood’s density justifies legal enforcement of the status quo, why not my reliance on my neighborhood’s racial or religious composition (both of which, I suspect, affect housing decisions just as much, if not more, than density)?
- Restrictive zoning might violate other people’s reliance interests. For example, if I move to city X and get married and start a career, am I relying on the likelihood that housing will continue to be affordable in city X? If I buy land, am I relying on the possibility that I can do what I want on the land?
I note that the reliance argument is not as pro-suburban as Alexander thinks. If neighbors of a proposed building or subdivision get veto power over housing because they relied on the status quo, this means housing should be built where fewer neighbors have relied on the status quo- that is, where fewer people live near the building/subdivision. Such places would by definition be the least dense places- that is, suburbs or rural areas as opposed to cities.