The Housing Famine
The real nature of our policy-induced housing problem
We use the term “housing crisis” a lot. Sometimes “housing shortage” or “housing crunch” or just “housing problem.” With the exception of “shortage,” all of these terms are somewhat vague. The most-used is probably “crisis,” which is both vague and alarmist. “Crisis,” like “fascist,” is one of those words which only really indicates that the person using it is concerned about the issue to which he attaches it.
Some people have crisis fatigue, and take the use of the word as evidence that the problem is overstated. (Similarly to how there are so many silly warnings on products that you can almost assume something is safe to do if there’s a warning against doing it.) Others think of the line about “never letting a crisis go to waste,” and assume the “crisis” is a Trojan horse for a political agenda.
I think a lot about the nature of the housing problem we face. What, exactly, is it? That’s a big question, but we know that shortage is the substance of it, and bad policy is the delivery mechanism—substantially including but not limited to zoning. And we know the effects are not mere inconveniences. Our metro economies are held back, our health is worsened, our time is wasted, our family sizes are constricted. The social and economic costs of this housing problem are immense, and acute.
So what do you call an artificial, policy-driven, to some extent politically driven, acute shortage of a basic necessity?
A famine. Zoning has induced the housing equivalent of a famine.
Famine conditions do not mean that everybody starves to death. But they mean that everything surrounding food, and by extension most or all of life, is impacted to some degree or another. The housing famine doesn’t mean everybody is homeless, of course. But it means that what should be a pretty unselfconscious necessity becomes a choke point in people’s lives, a source of stress and friction far beyond what it should naturally be.
The insanities and indignities to which homebuyers and renters are subjected—the gatekeeping, the extortion, the petty corruption—are not normal, inherent annoyances of procuring decent shelter. The fact that large swaths of entire metro regions have become unaffordable even to people of means, and that development is radiating out two, three, even four hours from job centers is all the evidence we need that something has gone very, very wrong.
The fact that this reality doesn’t hit us like a truck is itself evidence of how bad the problem has gotten. The fact that there is even such a term as “housing advocate,” and that “whether or not we should build housing” is a normal political debate, is further evidence.
Can you imagine if, in a world of constant and widespread hunger, there were people known as “food advocates,” who faced a lot of pushback to their idea that we should establish more farms and make it easier to grow food? That is precisely the situation we’ve gotten ourselves into with regard to housing—and worse, convinced ourselves that it is somehow not outrageous.
It’s sometimes said that Soviet cities were almost unique in having inverted density gradients, a feature which is now appearing in American metros in which zoning has forcibly decoupled the housing market from the broader economy. In other words, density increases as you leave the urban core.
In America, you can see this happening because older neighborhoods closer to the city, built decades ago in a different time, frequently oppose the continuation of natural, organic urban growth. That demand finds its form in newer, denser outer communities where there are fewer people to oppose their construction. This physical distance generates traffic, which leads to a sense of crowding, rather than a perception of sparseness and separation.
The operating principle of our housing status quo is a kind of Malthusianism, but even worse. Malthus believed that food production couldn’t keep up with population growth, and that famine was inevitable. We have nothing but our own choices to blame. In a time of unparalleled affluence, we have imposed a famine on ourselves, and wonder why people are starving.
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