Rational Decision-Making To Balance Ideological Extremes

Housing activists must be prepared to confront the kinds of political issues that Atlas has raised – and to give content to the kind of "populist" approach he has recommended.

If one agrees with John Atlas, as I do, that “housing activists who ignore the middle class and their concerns do so at their peril,” what is to be done?  Which approach to housing has the greatest potential for attracting support from both the poor and the “socially moderate middle class?”

If we must choose between a “neoliberal” approach that targets every available housing dollar to the most needy or a “populist” approach that provides benefits to “all who are suffering from the housing crisis,” there is little doubt that the latter is the better political choice. Clearly, the populist approach proposed by Atlas has the greater potential for building bridges across traditional divisions of class, race and place.

But is it fair to relegate to the ranks of the neoliberals anyone who fought for more public funding for the very poor during the long night of the Reagan-Bush era?  Is it good policy to squander scarce public dollars helping working-class people buy market-based housing, even if such programs proved popular in the past?  Is our only choice between “solutions based on cool, rational decision-making by the experts” and solutions based on the “passions” of a mobilized mass movement?

I would answer no to each of these questions. (I suspect that Atlas would too, though the opposite might be inferred from reading his article and review.)  Admittedly, my perspective is more than a little biased by years of working with the non-market models and nonprofit organizations of what I refer to in my new book (The Affordable City) as “third sector housing.” Within this sector, many of the either/or choices posed by Atlas become blurred. Targeting the poor is not synonymous with preserving the status quo of a dysfunctional housing system. Promoting homeownership is not synonymous with helping a privileged few into market housing. Rational decision-making in the production and rehabilitation of affordable housing is not incompatible with community organizing and direct action.

To suggest there is more complexity and more choice than Atlas implies, however, is not to dismiss his basic point. The approach he describes as “neoliberal” does isolate and stigmatize the poor; it does preserve the status quo; and it does undermine political support for social programs and progressive change.

On the other hand, to describe the alternative as “populist” does not really take us very far. We still need to know what to do. What are the models, policies, and programs with the most promise for building solidarity among the “bottom” eighty percent of the population?  In Canada, Holland, Germany, and the countries of Scandinavia, third sector housing has played a major role in broadening the base of support for national housing programs aimed at the poor and the middle class alike. Could the same happen here?  I believe so, but only if housing activists are prepared to confront the kinds of political issues that Atlas has raised – and to give content to the kind of “populist” approach he has recommended.


John Emmeus Davis is a partner and co-founder of Burlington Associates in Community Development, a national consulting cooperative specializing in the development of policies and programs promoting permanently affordable, owner-occupied housing. He was the housing director for Burlington, Vermont, in the mayoral administrations of Bernie Sanders and Peter Clavelle. Davis has taught housing policy and neighborhood planning at Tufts University, New Hampshire College, the University of Vermont, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


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