How to Be a Good Citizen During a Housing Crisis
Time for homeowners to rethink their public spirit.
Housing—more specifically, the question “How do we create a society in which housing is affordable for all?”—is one of the few issues that many people do believe is important but which is actually even more important than most of those people realize. The longer I have written about it, the more struck I have been by how complex it is, and how many other issues it drives. Of all the prime elements of economic inequality, housing is the one with the most material impact. Vast political and social and economic trends are propelled, at their core, by the actions of millions and millions of people desperately trying to find an affordable place to live.
The answers to “How do we create affordable housing?” are not intuitive. (Some people will argue this point, but generally those people are either very ignorant ideologues or very well informed experts, which is to say that they are not most people.) Intuitive, on the issue of housing, is someone walking around their town and seeing a bunch of new buildings and seeing rents going up everywhere and assuming that the new buildings are making the rents go up. That’s a perfectly natural conclusion! Most people are too busy or live lives too fulfilling to spend hundreds of hours poring over regional housing construction statistics. Fortunately, many writers are not too busy! Three cheers for the unfulfilling lives that afford some miserable bastards enough time to become experts in public policy!
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Housing policy is a book-length topic, and I am writing this piece to make one very specific point, so allow me to just lay out a few things that are true:
America has a housing shortage. For decades, we have not been building enough housing to keep up with demand. We need to build millions of housing units in order to meet the demand for housing that already exists.
The housing market, though complex, is driven by supply and demand. Just like everything else! When you don’t have enough housing, the price for housing goes up. This means there is no way to get out of our current housing affordability crisis without building lots (MILLIONS OF UNITS) of new housing.
“What about regulating Airbnb? What about rent control? What about banning people from owning two homes? What about Vienna-esque social housing? What about the government building more public housing?” Yes. Good. Do it. Do all these things. I want you to do them all. And rob Jeff Bezos while you’re at it! Fuck that guy! But all of these things put together are not enough to achieve the housing affordability we need. We still need to make more housing, everywhere, at all price points. We need to build, a lot. Even if you use regulation to bring down the price of a scarce asset, it is still scarce. We need housing to not be so scarce.
It has become clear over the past several decades that (not the only, but) a primary cause of our housing shortage is restrictive zoning in towns and cities all over the country. A simpler way to say this is: Due to human nature, as soon as people become homeowners they tend to not want a lot of new stuff built around them. They like their neighborhood how it is. The collective efforts of homeowners as a class have resulted in making it virtually impossible to build enough new housing to meet demand. That’s gone on for a long time and now we’re deep, deep in the deficit hole. Realization of this predicament has finally become widespread enough that it is driving reform efforts in cities and states across the nation, with varying degrees of success. Minneapolis banned single family zoning. California is slowly rolling back zoning restrictions that prevent building. New York… well, we just fucking failed to pass the reform we need, but at least the ball is rolling.
Let me get to the point. Setting aside those who revel in raw greed and self-interest, I think that most existing homeowners would agree, at least in the abstract, with the idea that we need affordable housing. If you patiently showed them all the research, I think they would also agree that achieving this goal means that we need to build a lot of new housing. The sticking point is that their collective answer to “Where do we build all this new housing?” tends to be “Somewhere else.” When everyone everywhere wants the housing built somewhere else, the outcome is that it does not get built, which is how we got where we are today.
Notice the philosophical argument implicit in this. Existing homeowners are asserting that the rights of private ownership are not absolute. They are asserting that there is a public right to restrict the way that private land is used. And most of us would agree with this! “Don’t build an incinerator spewing carcinogenic smoke next to an elementary school,” for example. Indeed, this is just the housing-specific version of the philosophical debate underlying all laws—the balance between freedom and responsibility to society. You are free to shoot off fireworks in your back yard in the woods, but not in a movie theater, because you are responsible for considering the rights of other people, too. Etcetera.
Homeowners will say that community input on land use is very much in this vein. This can certainly be taken to fascist extremes, like the HOAs that fanatically police how well you are cutting your lawn. (Or, a couple generations back, legally policed how many black people were moving into the neighborhood.) Frankly if you want to live in that kind of psycho neighborhood, you can have it. But for the sake of argument here let’s focus instead on land use objections that arise from a genuine place of concern for the public good. “You shouldn’t fill in this wetland to build a condo because the wetland stops storms from flooding our city.” “You shouldn’t build this housing development on the Superfund site that will give babies two heads.” “You shouldn’t tear down our historic district and turn it into hotels for tourists who came here to see how historic this place is.” Yes! Good! These are fine and legitimate reasons to argue against land use choices. They are not just self-interest with a mask on; they are reasonable arguments for the purpose of protecting the public.
There are, in fact, millions of homeowners who truly see their various crusades against various building projects as being very much in line with the public good. Many of these people became homeowners decades ago, before the housing affordability crisis reached its current acute stage. What I want to say to this class of people is this: You genuinely believe in the public interest, and now the public interest has changed. Specifically, we now have a housing crisis. That housing crisis is caused by a lack of housing supply. Building new housing is now a matter of vital public interest, the very same way that “protecting the environment” or “historic preservation” are. The facts of our national (and regional, and local) housing shortage mean that it is no longer viable to say “Don’t build new housing here,” in the same way that it is not viable to say “Eh, just fill in all the wetlands, we got plenty of em.” Reality has shown us that both of those things—no matter how plausible they may have seemed many years ago when the state of the world was different—are bad ideas.
In fact, the same commitment to the public good that may have propelled these homeowners to wage civic-minded battles against legitimately bad land use decisions in the past now demands that they support land use decisions that drastically increase new housing. The same sense of intergenerational responsibility that might cause someone to fight to preserve the environment in their area so that their children and grandchildren would have access to it now demands that they fight to get new housing built so that their children and grandchildren (and everyone else’s) will be able to enjoy full and free lives that are not defined by the crushing struggle to find affordable housing. It is perfectly understandable that past generations, whose politics were formed when this affordable housing crisis was far less apparent, did not rank “maintaining housing supply” high in their mental list of public causes. Daniel Duane’s recent New York Times Magazine story about growing up in Berkeley beautifully details how his mother’s generation, who came of age fighting battles against racist real estate developers who were part and parcel of a local power structure that was trying to squelch radical protest, found themselves as staunch opponents of development decades later. The problem is that between 1963 and 2023, the state of the world changed. By not changing with it, these progressives who valued equality and justice and helping the poor unwittingly found themselves on the other side of those values when it came to issues of housing.
The right to use private property is not absolute. It must be leavened by consideration of the public good. This is necessary for a peaceful and healthy society. For years, homeowners have used this basic premise to argue against building things. “You can’t just build your garish monstrosity there—you must think about others. You must think about the community. You must think about the public.” A justified argument, in many cases, I’m sure. And now, homeowners, this argument is coming back to you, in the form of a housing crisis. “You can’t just pretend you have an absolute right to a neighborhood full of single family homes in a city with a huge housing shortage. We need to tax the full value of land. We need to change zoning laws to enable much housing construction. The character of your neighborhood may change, yes. But you must think about all of the people in your city who live unhappy and distressed lives because they have no access to affordable housing. You must think about the community. You must think about the public.”
It’s the same argument, my people. Time to take responsibility. Time to build. Not just somewhere else. Here, there, and everywhere.
If you find my arguments too kindergarten-level for your taste, I encourage you to read the many fine housing policy experts who are currently writing on Substack! Darrell Owens and Ned Resnikoff, for example. Jerusalem Demsas writes very intelligible stories about these issues at The Atlantic, as well.
I am currently on deadline for my book edits. As you can see, I am procrastinating on them. But there is a good chance that How Things Work will have a light content week next week. People often approach me and say, “Please tell me when How Things Work is going to have a light content week, so I can make plans to step away from my computer for once.” Next week could very well be that time. Be warned.
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