The “Both/And” of the Housing Debate

Paul Krugman, the darling of progressive policymakers in the U.S., weighed in on the urban housing question recently, coming down firmly on the side of other economists in placing rising […]

Paul Krugman, the darling of progressive policymakers in the U.S., weighed in on the urban housing question recently, coming down firmly on the side of other economists in placing rising urban inequality at the foot of overly restrictive land use regulation. Many parts of “urbanist” Twitter breathlessly repeated Krugman's observations and joked about how the “debate” around housing supply and land use regulation is effectively over if Krugman says it is a problem.

Randy Shaw offered a counter to Krugman's observations, arguing vociferously that loosening land-use regulations is actually a boon for gentrification, and credits the efforts of neighborhood activists in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco to limit displacement. Pete Saunders offered a slightly more nuanced critique on his blog, but still frames this in a way that does not necessarily help planners, in particular, approach these thorny issues.

As with many great “debates” in the internet age, people often are responding to an issue they care about and not necessarily the issues brought up previously or those that are most important. 
The question of housing supply is indeed becoming a near hegemonic policy position due to its vital importance in “strong market” coastal cities that always garner attention (especially San Francisco with its central importance to Silicon Valley). Saunders does an excellent job of showing that the incredible demand we find in NYC or SanFran is not the case throughout the country and that we should be having a more diverse policy question therein. Where all three of these approaches fail, though, is in not taking a more holistic look at urban housing markets. Saunders get closest in trying to map out different demand structures across regions but both Krugman and Shaw remain wholly provincial in their arguments and we all lose out as a result.

Commentators, but especially planners and community development housing activists and professionals, need to start thinking about housing policy as “both…and.” It is not reasonable to couch housing policy as either unfettered building or only rent control. Those are policy recommendations for different problems. Shaw may indeed be correct in talking about increased building as a gentrifying force in a city where there are very few if any moderate to low income neighborhoods left at all. Folks in the Tenderloin are forced to take explicit defensive policy concerns to simply remain in their homes. And it is also true that allowing more building in San Francisco will help to lower overall aggregate housing prices, though even then, the varied submarkets of the city may react in unpredictable ways. We must be honest that the approach taken in the Tenderloin is a purely defensive one, and sees new construction as a zero-sum game. It may be the case in the Tenderloin that this is true, but this is hardly the case in cities throughout the country, and such defensive policies place a cap on the number of new residents a city can absorb, high and low income alike. It is hardly a progressive, or even a classically liberal, position to limit the ability of folks to move to places where they can find greater opportunity. At the same time, supply side advocates need to be much more cognizant of the particular aspects of neighborhood real estate markets and how they interact with greater city and regional markets.

In this case, planners must look at a range of policy options in order to combat the different housing needs across their cities and regions. In the Tenderloin, incumbent residents need explicit protection against displacement, while the city of San Francisco as a whole requires a huge increase in the number of units, either provided by the private market or the state. We must learn to fruitfully wrestle with the legitimate risks of displacement of low income families and neighborhoods with the needs of current and potentially new residents that move into your city. Simply removing building restrictions or limiting all growth is not the answer. We need a serious strategy around housing that embraces a wide array of policy options including the necessary step of constructing many units that are not prey to the whim of the private market. Toward that end, a true revival in new public housing construction should be on the table when we discuss housing affordability, as well as questions of housing discrimination and the expansion of transit to now low-income suburbs to better connect our regions, as well as people to better work opportunities.

(Photo credit: By Ajay Suresh, via flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

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