Why don’t we build more housing? I find the simple answers unsatisfying. It is very easy to blame the NIMBYs, the bureaucrats, or the unions, but I don’t think we can tackle this challenge without honestly looking at the role we each play in making choices that result in less housing being built and ultimately in higher housing costs.
We have chosen, over and over, to limit and constrain development. And that has, everywhere, the predictable effect of driving up housing costs. If we built enough housing, we would still need subsidized housing for many people, but market prices would be low enough that most people could afford them. But we’ve chosen not to. And the reason we give for that choice, more than any other, is that we are trying to preserve or improve the character of our communities.
When people talk about preserving their communities, what they have traditionally talked about are issues like increasing parking, reducing traffic, and preserving open space. And it has been in the name of this kind of “quality of life” that we have limited growth and predictably driven up housing costs.
If you are like me, when someone says they want to “preserve the character” of a community, what you hear is that they want to exclude poor people and people of color. This language has been used as code so much that it is hard to hear anything else, but recently we have seen the rise of a new breed of resistance to growth fueled by fear of gentrification and displacement.
When you listen to urban tenant activists, what they want sometimes sounds like what the stereotypical white homeowner has been asking for all this time: they worry that growth and development will change what they love about their neighborhoods. Somehow, I find it easier to hear these same words from different mouths, and it has made me wonder if we need to rethink how we approach even traditional NIMBYs.
Many of my favorite people have begun to embrace the idea that this kind of community self-protection should be strangled in the bathtub; that we should remove or drastically curtail the right of people to make the kinds of choices that limit development in their backyards. But the problem seems a lot simpler when you perceive someone else to be protecting “their” community—it is more complicated when we acknowledge our own role in these choices.
Whenever we choose, for good reasons or bad, to limit growth, we create higher housing costs. We have to recognize that we are the ones who are doing this. It’s not just greedy developers or racist NIMBYs, it’s us. Hopefully, just recognizing this will lead us to make different choices much of the time. (For example, maybe living in a vibrant community is worth a little parking headache.)
When we imagine someone else making this choice, it is easier to imagine forcing them to stop; when we acknowledge that these are our choices, we have to confront the possibility that we are likely to continue making them—at least some of the time.
Are There Good Reasons to Choose Less Growth?
As I write this, I am visiting Jackson, Wyoming, a town that is surrounded on all sides by national parks and where the National Elk Reserve runs almost to the center of town. When you ask people here about character and quality of life in Jackson you are more likely to hear about moose habitat than traffic and parking. Preservation of wildlife is a high priority community value here. Voters in Jackson have opposed growth for some of the same reasons as voters elsewhere but also in order to preserve their awe-inspiring natural environment. When they made the choice to preserve open space, they were essentially choosing to make housing in Jackson much more expensive. I suspect that most people didn’t realize this implication, but I also doubt whether, fully conscious of the cost, they would make a different choice today.
In the early 20th century people talked a lot about the “housing problem” but not about the “affordable housing problem.” That is because inexpensive housing was available everywhere but was generally unhealthy or unsafe. In the name of ‘quality of life’ we adopted fire codes, building codes, health codes, and basically banned substandard housing. When we did that, we were essentially choosing less housing and more expensive housing. I suspect we didn’t fully realize it at the time, but I also doubt we would make a different choice today.
It is hard (impossible?) to sort out the “appropriate” reasons for limiting growth from the selfish and discriminatory. They mingle together, sometimes subconsciously. Every day you see California homeowner groups abusing the CEQA process to delay development by feigning concern over environmental impacts. We should make that harder to do, but once we’ve done that, we will still have a legitimate need to address real community concerns about environmental impacts. It’s hard to see how, in a democracy, we can expect voters to agree to limiting their own ability to protect what they perceive to be the quality of life in their communities. If that is not fundamental to democracy, I don’t know what is.
A New Source of Hope
The way I see it, the problem is not that people are attached to ‘quality of life’ and ‘community character,’ the problem is the narrow and exclusionary way that our culture has defined these things in the past. Luckily, how we define “quality of life” is a moving target. It evolves over time and there is good reason to hope that it is evolving in the right direction.
Recently, in a shocking diversity of places, Americans have begun to talk about housing affordability itself as a threat to their quality of life; as undermining the ‘character’ of their communities.
In a small community like Jackson you can feel the loss of community as long time residents are displaced by rising costs and replaced with transient workers who can’t see a future for themselves here. You can pay people to drive hundreds of miles to wait tables and you can build barracks for ski lift operators, but you can’t expect those people to invest in making the community better, to coach little league, volunteer at the arts center or organize the community picnic. Gradually, high housing cost drains the very life out of a community.
In so many ways, Jackson couldn’t be more different from San Francisco, but, surprisingly, San Francisco is wrestling with exactly the same problem. People and businesses move to San Francisco because it is a great place, and part of what makes it great is the restaurants and cafes and the murals and the musicians playing in the subway. Displacement is not just a problem for the people displaced, it is a threat to the quality of the place and everyone feels it to some degree or another.
While efforts to limit local planning authority (like California’s SB35) seem to be necessary as short-term responses to the crisis, there is a very real limit to how far elected legislatures can push their voters. Where a court might make sweeping changes to the planning framework, legislatures can only take small steps, and even then, there is good reason to fear a backlash. Over the longer term we can’t win this battle without convincing most voters to expand the way that they think about ‘quality of life’ and ‘community character.’
Housing Affordability as “Quality of Life”
This may sound like an unattainable goal but a recent study shows just how far we have already moved in this direction.
Michael Hankinson, a graduate student at Harvard, surveyed 3,000 people nationwide and found, to no one’s surprise, that Americans are far more supportive of development when it is not in their neighborhood. Hankenson described imaginary real estate projects and indicated how close they were to the respondents’ house. The closer they were, the less likely people were to support building. This kind of NIMBYism has been well documented among homeowners but Hankenson found even stronger ‘location sensitivity’ among renters in high cost cities. These renters strongly supported more building overall, but objected to projects in their own neighborhoods. In fact, more than half of the renters surveyed who expressed support for citywide housing growth also supported an outright ban on new development in their own neighborhoods! Hankenson was able to show that the fear that new development would lead to increased rents at the neighborhood scale was driving this opposition.
This dynamic changed dramatically when Hankenson asked about projects that contained a share of affordable units.
Renters whose opposition to market rate projects increased as they got closer to their home had the opposite reaction to projects that included a modest share of affordable units—the closer to home, the more strongly they supported them.
It is hard to overstate just how much this finding conflicts with the conventional wisdom on NIMBYism. In the past, if NIMBY’s opposed market rate development, they opposed affordable development twice as strongly. For affordable housing to be functioning as a way to reduce neighborhood opposition to market rate building, as this research seems to be showing, something very new must be happening.
We have been seeing this new reality play out in development deals and citywide housing policy for the past decade in a series of isolated ‘Grand Bargain’ compromises where including some affordable units leads to more political support for increased market rate building. But I don’t think most of us have really reflected on the underlying change in voter sentiment that must have already taken place for those bargains to work politically. This survey research suggests that these Grand Bargains may not be isolated quirky compromises, but rather evidence of a deeper and more lasting change in how people think about the ‘character’ of their communities and how best to preserve what they love about those places.
People in urban America are on their own starting to feel that preserving housing affordability is key to preserving the character and quality of life in their communities. The task for housing advocates now is to give them more ways to express those feelings in the voting booth.
Taking Responsibility For Our Choices
Hopefully this change in public sentiment will result in a lasting consensus that refusing all growth creates undesirable places, and that we need planning and zoning rules that enable enough building to meet market demand.
But, even after we all commit to that general goal, sometimes we will still make specific choices that limit growth. So, if we care about affordability and quality of life, it is not enough to wish that problem away, we have to plan for the consequences.
After decades of ignoring the obvious consequences of our choices, communities across the country are finally beginning to respond to growth constraints that aren’t going away by investing in more affordable housing. Jackson has a 25-year head start. Through steady investment of public and private funding, and consistently applied inclusionary housing requirements, they have built nearly 1500 units of permanently affordable housing in and around Jackson—enough to house about 20 percent of local households. Everywhere you go, there are people who live in this “non-market” social housing stock. The lawyer who writes the deed restrictions lives in an affordable home. The Mayor of Jackson is on the waiting list. While I don’t think people made the connection at the time, this is what it looks like when a community chooses to limit growth and, at the same time, takes responsibility for the predictable results.
It reminds me of Vermont where it’s not elk habitat that people want to preserve, but farmland. In the 1980s, the people of Vermont started to feel like their pastoral landscape was being consumed by strip malls and subdivisions. They voted to tax themselves to pay for farmland conservation, but they recognized that less building would automatically make housing more expensive, and they took responsibility for that choice. They decided to invest simultaneously in preserving affordable housing. Since then, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Trust Fund has preserved 400 thousand acres of farmland and also financed the creation of more than 10 thousand affordable homes throughout the state.
The more we limit growth, the more aggressively we will need to invest in below market rate housing if we want to maintain healthy, functional and economically diverse communities. The right choice will be different in each place. Most communities won’t consciously choose to limit growth so much that their lawyers need subsidized housing. That might be the right choice for Jackson, but it surely isn’t for San Francisco. But, few places are likely to embrace growth at the scale necessary for the market on its own to provide enough housing that is affordable to service workers.
While making the development process more predictable seems important, we won’t build enough housing to meet our needs until we first convince at least half of the voters that building more housing (and more affordable housing) is essential to preserving the character and quality of life of our communities. People have to feel that the right kind of building is not how we change our communities into something different but how we hold on to and grow what we already love about where we live.