Daily Archives: July 8, 2014

Where’s the Political Constituency for Increasing Housing Supply?

It sounds simple enough. LA, like many US cities, has a housing shortage. Increasing housing supply would reduce the cost of housing, allowing people to save or spend more on other things. It would also allow more people to move to the city and take advantage of economic opportunities. LA is already a city of renters by a wide margin (62% renter to 38% owner), and even at the county level, LA County is 53% renters. By this logic, there should be a lot of people who have an interest in seeing a lot more housing construction.

Clearly, though, the reality in many cities is that the forces opposing development are well-organized and exert a substantial amount of political power. Good ideas, no matter how good, will be doomed to the purgatory of academia and the blogosphere forever if there is no political constituency behind them. If increasing housing supply is a good idea, we need to figure out why there’s not more political support for it – and what could be done to change that.

Consider this a very rough attempt at a first step in that effort.

Diffuse Benefits

It’s hard to get motivated to take political action when the benefits are so decentralized. For example, how much benefit am I personally going to derive from an increase in construction in the San Gabriel Valley? And how seriously is my input, as a Westside resident, going to be considered by local politicians who don’t have to answer to my vote? Meanwhile, vocal NIMBYs perceive impacts at a hyper-local level – a street, a block, an individual property – and it is much easier for them to coordinate action. This is essentially the argument that Matthew Yglesias makes in The Rent is Too Damn High.

I think this is a weak argument. People will be motivated to apply political pressure if they perceive an issue to be important. For example, many people in California will see little personal benefit from the state’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, yet still support those efforts because they believe it to be an important issue for society. People either do not believe land use in other neighborhoods is important, or they haven’t been provided with an adequate way to express their opinions.

Different Priorities

When a good is scarce, people often try to preserve their own access rather than try to increase supply of the good. This is why anti-immigrant sentiment always increases during recessions – easier to save the jobs for yourself than try to increase the supply of jobs.

In the case of housing, this impulse manifests as things like rent control and anti-eviction regulations. While these policies do something for people who already live in the city and qualify for the policies, they don’t do anything for people who don’t qualify, or for people who live somewhere else but would like to move to the city. In fact, for those latter groups, these policies arguably make things worse.

Policies like rent control and eviction controls are essentially defensive reactions to unaffordability. Increasing housing supply would be going on the offensive. People acting from a defensive mindset aren’t going to have the same priorities.

I like the way that AURA, an advocacy group in Austin, Texas, frames things: we need abundant housing.

When Austin has enough homes to accommodate all those who wish to live here, housing will be more affordable across the entire housing market. However, there will always be a need to provide for those who need it most. Public subsidy should be focused on those most in need, using proven programs such as the Housing First model of addressing homelessness.

Abundant housing includes affordable housing, but goes beyond. Defensive policies don’t do anything about the city being gated; they just decide who gets to be inside the gate. Abundant housing would mean that the opportunity to be an Angeleno would be available to anyone, and let us welcome new residents to LA.

Unequal Access

Many minority and low-income communities remember that for decades, governments and markets conspired to deny them equal access to housing. In fact, in many cases these forces conspired not only to deny access, but to actively destroy minority wealth through housing. Having secured some measure of political power, these communities are understandably reluctant to make themselves vulnerable to market forces.

They also see, and correctly interpret as unfair, calls for more development in their communities, like Boyle Heights, while no development occurs in wealthy SFR neighborhoods on the Westside, like Cheviot Hills, Rancho Park, and Beverlywood. Urban development plans, right up to the present, often treat low-income and minority communities as if they don’t exist or are expendable.

There will only be support for increasing housing supply in these communities if people can believe they will not be treated unfairly. And the policies have to deliver, too! Allowing growth, especially of the smaller housing types, should be a way to build wealth in minority communities. Development should be spread out across the region, too – that’s a more equitable way, and it also makes more sense given LA’s polycentric nature.

Building a Constituency

The task of building a political constituency to advocate for increasing housing supply is daunting.

However, all the impediments to increasing supply are political, and politics can change. If you think it’s impossible, remember that in 1985 the Westside Subway was illegal, and now it’s inevitable. In 1998 Zev Yaroslavsky was banning the funding of subway construction with county sales taxes; in 2008 he was promoting Measure R to build the Purple Line. Residents in the San Fernando Valley prohibited light rail, now they want the Orange Line converted to LRT. If you want a land use example, consider that the last time Houston had a vote on introducing zoning, it was defeated by low-income neighborhoods. In politics, everything is untenable and impossible, until it’s not.

How do you build that constituency? Well, that’s the hard part. And to be honest, I have no idea. I think to start, everyone will have to just listen to potential advocates and allies, rather than telling each other what to do. But if housing supply is going to have a chance, we have to start somewhere.