Misunderstanding the Meaning of "Housing Crisis"
The furor over New York's housing plan misses the point
Yesterday, I came across this letter to the editor in the Alexandria Times, headlined “How about a population cap?”, responding to nearby Arlington’s Missing Middle housing policy. An excerpt:
Cramming more structures to house more people into the defined space called Arlington or Alexandria is not going to make housing costs more affordable. These costs, whether for building materials, sites on which to build or for the resulting rents, are determined by market forces, i. e., supply and demand.
Here’s what these two forces foretell for the champions of equity, inclusion and whatever else is agitating them to make Arlington and Alexandria more densely populated: More population density makes Alexandria and Arlington more costly.
Why the fact that supply and demand determine housing costs, which is true, implies that building more housing will in fact exacerbate unaffordability is not explained. Many critics seem to think that cities are expensive because they are built up, not that they are built up because their economies demand/can support that much development. It’s seeing correlation but getting the causation backwards.
But aside from that common economic misconception, note that the author refers to housing advocates as “champions of equity, inclusion and whatever else.” Keep that in mind.
In yesterday’s link roundup, I included a New York Times opinion piece that drew a lot of controversy, over the fight between New York governor Kathy Hochul and the Long Island suburbs. Broadly, she wants a plan where communities would have to permit a certain amount of housing, and if they fail to do so, the state government could preempt their local zoning codes. Expensive, and exclusive, suburbs do not want that. Housing advocates would call them NIMBYs. They would say they just believe in local control. They are often the same thing.
I use these controversies to try to reframe this whole debate, as I did here, for example. Part of the problem is that new housing is viewed as a choice or an option at all—somewhere along the way, we lost the obvious understanding that of course every human settlement is always subject to change and growth. The economy and the population—obviously linked—should determine where housing goes. And that’s about it. The whole phenomenon of housing being a political issue or debate is very strange, and even some housing advocates, I think, have lost sight of how strange it is.
So I’d say that “the state government should force exclusionary suburbs to build more housing” isn’t exactly the right framing. As a policy, it’s really a stopgap. The right framing is, there should be many fewer veto points for stopping the natural construction of new housing, everywhere.
But the author of that New York Times piece also refers to the frequently racist history of zoning. Of the posh Long Island suburbs she writes, “These zoning laws are among the most restrictive in the country. They severely limit the state’s housing supply, making the entire region less affordable. And they are rooted in Jim Crow.”
As a pure matter of history, based on everything I have studied and read, this is true. The same Supreme Court blessed zoning and eugenics; some of the first zoning codes—struck down by the Supreme Court back in the early 20th century—were explicitly racial. Zoning as it exists today can be, and by many was understood to be, racial by other means. (And, of course, exclusionary by class as well.) This is a fact; it is not an attack, any more than acknowledging slavery is an attack on white Americans today.
Nonetheless, once many affluent white suburbanites who are already skeptical of a “left-wing agenda” hear “Jim Crow,” all bets are off. It’s like when housing advocates use climate change as a reason to build denser cities. Many conservatives will say, “Oh, so that’s what this is all about.” (I write about conservatives because I’m more familiar with them and in many ways I am one—but there are housing skeptics on the left as well, with their own set of arguments.)
Remember the fellow who wants a population cap in Alexandria calls housing advocates “champions of equity, inclusion and whatever else.”
So then, yesterday afternoon, I saw a piece by conservative writer Kevin Williamson in the right-of-center publication The Dispatch, titled “What New York Housing Shortage?” He writes: