We Can Totally Build Our Way Out of This Problem

#3 Series Century City construction. Photo by Genesha37 via flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

For well over a decade, I’ve heard many people I admire and respect say, “We can’t build our way out of this problem,” referring to the national affordable housing shortage or the homelessness crisis. It’s always spoken in a very matter-of-fact way, like how you’d say, “There sure is a lot of air outside today,” or “Madonna’s been on a creative decline ever since she released Ray of Light.”  It’s so obvious, it’s barely worth mentioning, and yet, people do. A lot.

Not the Madonna thing. The housing thing. I didn’t think much about it when I heard it for the first several years, I just nodded seriously and waited for whatever came next. Over time, I noticed that everyone seemed to start the sentence the same, but end it differently and vaguely: “Well, we can’t build our way out of this problem, so we’re going to have to get creative,” or “We can’t build our way out of the homeless crisis, so we might as well have tacos for dinner.” At some point, I realized I didn’t even know why people were using this phrase or what it meant. Rather than ask, I decided to make a list of possible translations and my own handy response to each.

  1. “We have failed for many decades to build the affordable housing we need, so I’m resigned to the idea that we will continue to fail.”
    That’s not the kind of can-do attitude that put a person on the moon. This is America.  We failed for over 200 years to provide marriage equality and things didn’t change from a bunch of people saying, “Well, we can’t marry our way out of this problem.” Put on your fix-it pants!
  2. “It would take a long time to build all the affordable housing we need.”
    That is a more accurate and manageable problem statement.  Thank you.
  3. “It’s too expensive to build our way out of this problem.”
    No, it’s not.
  4. “We should provide a mix of more built affordable housing and more vouchers to help people pay rent on the open market.”
    That’s fine. Say that.
  5.  “I actually thought her next album, ‘Music‘ was really solid.”
    You’re off topic again. Focus.

In closing, I have purchased a small air horn and, from now on, when someone starts to say “We can’t build our way out of this problem,” I’m going to blow the air horn and yell, “We can totally build our way out of this problem!” You should, too. People are counting on us.

A version of this post originally appeared in the Home Forward newsletter.

Michael Buonocore is executive director of Home Forward.


  1. I agree, but only if the housing built is affordable. The problem I see in my city is that elected leaders rely on the private sector to decide what is built. The result is more and more luxury residential development, not affordable in any sense. Yet these politicians and their supporters insist that this “go-go” development of more and more housing for wealthy people will increase supply to the point where prices will drop and the market will then provide affordable units. This trickle-down approach seems wrong-headed. The government shouldn’t be lavishing resources and support on luxury housing developers when there is a crying need for affordable housing. If we care about affordable housing, let’s build that, not more upper-income apartments.

  2. The private sector could (sort of) solve this problem if there was no zoning to restrict supply. Mr. Hathaway’s post about “trickle down” housing policy probably refers to a city where the government allows a tiny bit more housing to be built and declares victory, rather than eliminating ALL restrictions on housing. How do I know this? Because every city in the United States falls into this category. Even the most lenient cities zone out multifamily housing for huge chunks of the city, or (in the case of New York) simply make it impossible to increase the housing supply in most of the city. (The only possible exception, Houston, still imposes parking requirements and density restrictions that limit housing supply to some extent).

    But everything I said is subject to two huge qualifications (thus, the “sort of” in my first line).

    1. Even if we bring average rents down, there will always be some people who are destitute and unable to pay them. Thus, there still should be subsidized/public housing for those at the low end of the income scale. If we returned to a 1915 level of regulation, the number of people needing such housing would be reduced- but it still would not be reduced to zero.

    2. Even though a zoning-free market might supply some housing for everyone that is better than sleeping on the street, it still might not supply DECENT housing for everyone. In the pre-zoning world of 1920, the very poorest would pay a nickel a night for sleeping in a movie theater or in a flophouse with other destitute people- a space undoubtedly less “decent” than modern public housing but still more “decent” than sleeping on the streets.

    • I agree with your points here Michael. Planners and politicians skew the housing market in two important ways that contribute to a shortage of affordable housing: 1) limiting intensity of development below what the market would naturally bear; and 2) putting quality standards on housing. Few would argue that putting quality standards on housing is a bad thing—we want to avoid tenements after all (there may be some disagreement about how far we should go here, but what most municipalities have isn’t too controversial, for the most part).

      #1 is more of a problem. There aren’t many good reasons, from a planning perspective, to limit intensity of development below what the market would naturally bear. Providing for park space, for sure, but this mostly results in a bit more demand for intensity of development in the swaths in between, which could be permitted. Mandatory stepbacks, or limiting the width of buildings to eke out a shred of sunlight or the viewshed for some (Vancouverism) is still on shaky ground, to my mind. The main reason, though, why intensity of development is limited is property owners putting pressure on politicians to ostensibly limit problems of traffic and parking—which problems aren’t problems where good transit is provided. Since requiring a certain standard of housing is reasonable (for most sane people), and since planners can’t always successfully oppose politicians limiting development for political reasons, we should understand that the market is skewed and support subsidized housing on this account.

      The other issue—the fact that all new housing is more expensive and therefore affordable only by the more affluent—is fixed by the fact that this housing eventually gets older, becomes less desirable, and is affordable by a lower income group over time (too many planners forget this, including Will Hathaway, above). In other words, we need to keep building now (or allow builders to keep building now), if we are to ensure affordable housing for the future. Oh, and in the meantime, we need to build subsidized housing for those who will never be able to afford housing because of how planners and politicians skew the housing market. : )

  3. What is the problem that we are trying to build ourselves out of? Because if it is rent burdens for low-income Americans, that is a problem that has existed for generations and which goes on irrespective of housing construction rates. To many, today’s “housing crisis” mostly refers to the fact that for the first time middle-class and college-educated Americans are facing rent burdens that the working-class has always faced.

    The market *can* build its way out of today’s crisis, if we mean helping the type of folks who care about “housing policy” and read this (awesome) site. But fixing a housing system that is *designed* to financially exploit the working class for the benefit of wealthier Americans… the only way of doing that is doing it on purpose, not as a by-product of meeting another goal and would require a drastic (and intimidating) overhaul of our financial industry.

  4. There are 6 vacant houses in America for every 1 homeless person.

    That’s not a building problem. That’s an economic equality problem.

    Could we build our way out of the problem of affordable housing? Absolutely. Will we? It’s unlikely. Not when it’s cheaper to buy one-way bus tickets out of town for the homeless. Not when we can hand the poor Section 8 vouchers and send them to the suburbs. Not when gentrification can displace the poor.

    We’re a mobile, almost rootless, hyper-competitive society. Every city is in a race to grow or die. Why would any city waste zillions of dollars trying to accommodate the poor, when it’s cheaper to sweep them into someone else’s back yard? What do these poor contribute to the shiny cityscapes? Authentic ethnic eateries? Cheap janitors? “Let them take a 60-minute bus ride in from the suburbs.” That’s the thinking that makes the big cities bigger.

  5. When I wrote this article, originally for our agency’s e-letter, I was hoping it would encourage people to re-think some of the self-defeating narrative we often engage in. I was also hoping it would spark some conversations, so I’ve really appreciated reading people’s responses here. Thanks for returning the favor and giving me some things to think about!

  6. We can totally build affordable housing. I disagree somewhat with some of the other commenters. The price of land is often the biggest variable that makes housing either affordable or not affordable. I think we focus too much on the cost of building materials and safety standards when this is ultimately an affordable community issue. Is the code about safety or is the code being used to keep certain people out?

    Redlining is still happening today, and the impact of previous redlining has resulted in many areas receiving no or little investment in infrastructure and the immediate surrounding area. We have artificially inflated the price of housing. Due to the wide variety of housing prices among communities, it is hard to incentivize build housing at an affordable level when the exact same housing could be valued for much more in a so-called good area.

    We have to address the inequality that we have among communities to truly address the affordable housing crisis.

  7. A lot of people have seemed to misappropriate/misinterpret that statement to mean that we should not build. My understanding of the phrase is that building units alone does not make the units affordable. What we need is policy that is, to quote the Washington Post, “specifically directed at balancing market forces with the public interest does that, including recent investments in the Housing Initiative Fund and rent subsidies.”


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