What the “New” Housing Advocates Miss

Today's housing supply advocates should look at the political and legal histories behind opening up the suburbs and embrace fair housing law as one tool in the fight to gut exclusionary zoning.

cupertino aerial view

Photo credit: Aerial view of Cupertino, CA, by Kevin Hale, CC BY-SA 2.0

Emily Badger has a recent piece in the Washington Post that typifies the logic of the new urban housing advocates. Badger points out the irrationality underlying many local protests of increased housing density as well as draws the linkages between growing metros resistance to increased housing and socio-economic inequality. The answer in these pieces is always simple—loosen zoning restrictions and let developers meet market demand.

It is clear that overly restrictive zoning is a major culprit in the many housing affordability crises we see in growing cities across the country. But what commentators in the “liberalize zoning” crowd lack is an understanding of the local political context in these large metropolitan areas. For example, Badger talks about the Bay Area and San Francisco as basically synonymous entities and not as a collection of rather disparate municipalities with their own governmental structures and local politics.

The result of this is a fundamental misinterpretation of the potential levers of power housing activists can pull. For example, while there is a large renter constituency and movement in the city of San Francisco, the same cannot be said for San Fran’s surrounding suburbs like Cupertino (here’s a talk from Kim-Mai Cutler on that history). These suburban enclaves have no real indigenous renter population because they were designed from the very beginning to be owner enclaves. You simply will not get a mass movement against exclusionary zoning in such communities unless you get a band of renegade homeowners who decide they want to radically open their neighborhoods. Given historical anxiety over school quality and transparent discrimination against renters, it is unlikely these parts of metropolitan areas will dramatically increase local density.

One potential reason why the new housing advocates may miss the political and historical contexts around zoning is that they often draw from a relatively narrow range of academics and studies when discussing cities. Urban economists like Ed Glaeser and Enrico Moretti are long time advocates of zoning liberalization as a means of maximizing regional growth, but their studies ignore the underlying political conflicts and actors that encourage zoning restrictions.

Additionally, scholars like Sonia Hirt, who recently wrote a fine book on the history of zoning, focus primarily on the political conflicts around the adoption of zoning as a policy tool and not on the use of zoning as a weapon in social segregation. In this sense, Hirt’s Zoned in the USA and similar works are inadequate to actually guide our understanding of how zoning has been used in the recent past, or today, as a tool of segregation.

This paradox, or blind spot, is why these new housing supply advocates should look at the political and legal histories behind opening up the suburbs and embrace fair housing law as one tool in the fight to gut exclusionary zoning. There is arguably no other policy or legal tool that can subvert the political inertia that exists in suburbs around exclusionary zoning.

While fair housing law is imperfect, and decidedly slow, if the new housing advocates are serious about increasing density throughout metropolitan areas, then they should take a hint from the old housing advocates and embrace the ideals of fairness and justice and advocate not simply for increasing the housing supply or liberalizing zoning but for desegregating our cities and suburbs.

Recent work from journalists like Nikole Hannah-Jones exploring the death of fair housing and school desegregation shines a light on the long standing, racist anxiety that underpins opposition to expanding the housing supply and densifying neighborhoods. But what Jones’ work also highlights is the necessity of a multi-scale political project that works at local, regional, state, and federal levels. Simply put, the new housing advocates will never see their desires realized (or they’ll only find success in the central cities they desire to live in where there’s a big enough constituency) if they do not join forces with fair housing advocates in attacking the institutional foundations that underpin exclusionary zoning everywhere.

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