DI Politics Chat: Upzoning the American Dream

San Francisco, ground zero for the affordable-housing crisis. Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

This chat ran in the Daily Intel newsletter, which combines a digest of the stories you care about with exclusive political commentary that you won’t find on the website. To subscribe to the newsletter, click here.

I’m your host, Ezekiel Kweku, and today I’m grilling two members of New York’s politics team —  Eric Levitz and Ed Kilgore — on the urban housing crisis and how progressives should think about it. Let’s go.

Ezekiel: S.B. 827, a bill to require local government to accept dense developments near transit hubs and thereby reduce housing costs, died in committee in California. What’s the headline reason why?

Ed: Is Jon not going to be in on this one, since he wrote the column that got all the attention?

Ezekiel: He has a deadline. Plus, since he’s not here we can talk about him behind his back.

Ed: Ha ha. I think our next chat topic should be about Jon. Purely and simply.

Ezekiel: “Fisking Chait.”

Ed: I want to ask him again publicly about “Diary of a Dean-o-phobe.”

Eric: These chats should all just be Maoist criticism sessions of the DI staff.

Ed: Anyway — the reason is that it was opposed by nearly every local government in California, plus tenants’ advocates, plus Republicans. It was obviously a big idea that scared a lot of people.

Eric: Also, millennial renters aren’t as politically organized/motivated about zoning issues as boomer homeowners, and YIMBY yuppies aren’t a big enough counterweight.

Ed: Maybe, though the only visible supporters of the measure were Silicon Valley types, real estate developers, and some environmentalists. Renters’ groups tended to be as hostile as anyone else. I don’t think the politics on the ground in California quite matched the configuration of forces in the national debate it helped promote.

Eric: In my (limited) experience covering similar issues in New York, low-income tenants’ associations often fiercely oppose upzoning out of an (often correct) belief that development in their neighborhoods will increase the value of real-estate in the area, and thus, in the long run, raise their rents, even as the new supply brings down rents in the metropolitan area as a whole. Does seem like new development would be in the material interests of middle/upper middle-class renters — especially those currently priced out of desirable urban centers and/or convenient locations within them. But that constituency doesn’t seem all that mobilized.

Ezekiel: I think the data agrees with you, Eric, that renters act like hyperlocalized NIMBYs.

Ed: The chief sponsor of S.B. 827, State Senator Scott Wiener, made a late (too late) effort to bring not only tenants’ groups but minority housing advocates generally around with amendments that prohibited demolition of existing low-income housing and required construction of new low-income housing.

Ezekiel: So is this a problem with no constituency for any particular solution?

Ed: Over all, Ezekiel, you may be right. “High-density housing” is an extremely popular idea with urban planners and some environmentalists. But it’s not popular with all that many voters. And the problem, of course, is that the impact on housing prices is debatable, as we’ve already mentioned. The more general idea of using the leverage of state government to overcome NIMBYism at the local level still has merit, even if this particular approach to it fails.

Eric: I think there are alternatives that would likely garner more popular support, but developer resistance, like creating community land trusts that preserve affordability by converting public land into cooperatively owned housing and/or expanding public/social housing.

Ed: Yeah, there are other ways to increase the affordable housing stock than killing height restrictions. But they may not have the environmental benefits of upzoning. As a resident of the central coast of California, I can vouch for the fact that development restrictions are really pervasive.

Eric: True.

Ezekiel: I can just imagine the anti-social housing ads. “Obamatowns.”

Ed: Any sort of significant development plan usually requires a ballot initiative, and the impulse of homeowners is to vote “no” on everything. In this context, the fact that California Republicans are so powerless is a good thing. One of the two GOP candidates for governor of California opposes the whole idea of multifamily housing, saying Californians want a backyard. That’s really constructive, eh?

Eric: Yeah, social housing would be heavy lift. But if current trends persist, the ranks of the housing insecure are going to grow so massive, the boundaries of political possibility just might move, at least in blue states. Alternatively, there might be some way for policymakers to redirect economic activity away from the handful of metropolitan areas where it’s currently concentrating. That’s not a subject I’ve thought much about, but the regional inequalities created by current trends seem to create a whole host of political and social problems.

Ezekiel: I do think that’s part of the problem, Ed — having a house is part of the middle-class American dream.

Ed: Yes, I understand. But it’s also why we have sprawl. I’m originally from Atlanta, where minimum lot sizes and weak development planning has created a monster of a metropolitan area, covering 29 counties.

Ezekiel: Absolutely. Jumping off of that point, Eric, about regional inequality — Kevin Drum suggested (in a column that I found mostly incoherent other than this point) that we should focus on building denser housing in midsize cities rather than urban metropolises like San Francisco that seems to me to be a recipe, in theory, at least, for reducing regional inequality.

Ed: That’s tough in a state the size and complexity of California. You could argue that by insisting on building a high-speed rail stretch connecting Fresno and Bakersfield that probably won’t be built anywhere else, the state is trying to address regional inequality. But it won’t go far, literally. [That was an inside California joke, Ezekiel!]

Ezekiel: Ha ha.

Eric: It does seem like employers are favoring big cities over midsize ones, due to various network effects (like the abundance and thus affordability of flights into NYC, relative to Cincinnati; and of course, the concentration of skilled and unskilled labor in the big metros) I feel like the regional inequality problem is more about jobs than housing (which follows from the former).

Ed: I agree with Eric that housing is sometimes overemphasized in these discussions. In the end, it’s all about money. But the disparities in housing costs between, say, L.A. and Houston are pretty shocking to people. I feel like the environmental aspects of this issue aren’t getting quite the attention they deserve.

Ezekiel: Ha, that could apply to any topic in 2018.

Eric: Very true.

Ed: A combination of housing prices, the abandonment of national fuel efficiency standards, and very limited public transit mean that more sprawl could be really devastating environmentally. People want their single-family housing with a big backyard, and their big-ass SUV, and cleaner air.

Ezekiel: Good thing the environment is in very good shape and can take a hit!

Eric: Every man a king. Every fall a thousand-year storm.

DI Politics Chat: Upzoning the American Dream