What the “New” Housing Advocates Miss

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.

Jamaal Green is a doctoral degree candidate at Portland State University in the Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning studying economic development and equity planning. His specific interests include the intersections of land-use and economic development policy and the role that planning can play in mitigating social and political inequality.


  1. Thanks for this critique, Jamaal. I’m mostly persuaded. It’s also helping me finally make a little progress in thinking about the ways that liberalize-zoining folks like me need to quit with the economics for a minute and get into the political economics. If part of my price-control plan depends on something that’s contrary to the current laws of local politics, it’s not much of a plan unless I’ve also got a viable scheme to change the laws of local politics. Is that something like the point here?

    I think ignoring the lack of an actual political road map to a better-functioning housing market is one of the luxuries of theory. For a lot of the “old” housing advocates alluded to here, it probably made no sense to even talk about theory in the absence of a political road map.

    But (to retreat back into the sweet sweet safety of theory) I do have a question about the Badger piece that this is a response to: isn’t she basically still right that there is no such thing as running out of room in any U.S. city? Regardless of suburbs? You don’t need to think about Cupertino politics to say that there is no reason that like 2/3 of San Francisco needs to be two stories high.

    A more functional market would require suburbs to sign on to the Glaeser agenda, too. But in the utopian scenario where Glaeserites seize control of every major central city and upzone everything, you would probably get a lot more supply.

    (Closing disclaimer: despite copping to my basically being a Glaeserite here, I’m not arguing that supply alone is anything other than one of many changes needed to the housing system.)

  2. Her point about cities not running out of room is correct, but that doesn’t exclude her conceptual slippage around scale. She uses San Francisco and the “Bay Area” interchangeably and still does not lay out any semblance of a political analysis in talking about San Francisco.

    Ultimately, there’s not that much “theory” underlying the upzone point. It’s basic supply and demand which holds a lot of influence but it’s not even very sophisticated housing economics. While I think the point is often abused we do see clear temporal limits in construction, aka it takes a long time to build enough units to flatten prices while cities simultaneously gain new residents. Or that developers build in particular housing submarkets such that those folks who are most housing insecure are often the last to get units even in a booming market.

    And, of course, this says nothing about current tenant protections against involuntary displacement or housing insecurity more generally. The “old” housing advocates may not have had their discourse around supply and demand as sharp as they needed but they did have a theory of change, working theories of the political economics of cities that included limits to building, landlord abuse, and developer politics within a greater city politics. What is packing city hall with protesters and writing letters and organizing if not a coherent political strategy informed by a theory of change? The liberalize zoning commentariat has not had to resort such strategies primarily because they occupy seats of power in the national media and think tanks. So, they can get the topic on the agenda and talked about but can they move it forward? And ultimately, you still need that understanding of how a particular city works to even get to the question of making SanFran taller. It applies to cities and double for greater metropolitan areas.

    The ultimate point is that simply pointing a zoning code, and attendant change of that zoning code, as the answer to housing “affordability” is one, a shallow reading of what affordable and secure housing means, and two, not actually engaging with how one would actually go about making that happen or covering the decisions that go into it. In cities that have upzoned what are the stories behind it? Who are the big actors? Where was the mayor or city council? What were the varied community responses? How were they addressed? Another summary of Hirt’s first chapter and pointing to a set of supply and demand curves is not a sufficient narrative or analysis here.


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