A Housing Platform
Yesterday I posted Why Housing, my thinking on why housing is the most important state and local issue in California. The following platform is cross-posted from YIMBY Neoliberal. As primary author, it is a good representation of my perspective on the policies we should embrace to solve our housing crisis.
Cities are vibrant, diverse, interesting places, the centers of civilization. But today, we face a crisis in many of our most productive cities, with skyrocketing housing costs driving poverty, inequality, and epidemic homelessness. Two out of three people worldwide are projected to live in urban areas by 2050,¹ and many more would benefit socially and economically from living in our cities than we can currently support. The limitation is housing density, not land.
Solving this crisis requires a combination of well-functioning, properly regulated markets and effective government. We support a set of reforms that we believe would abate the housing crisis and make our cities more fair and livable. Most of all, we love our cities, and we want to make them better places to live, for everyone.
We want our cities to be:
Not everyone has to live in a city, but we must allow dense urban spaces for those who want to.
Dense cities are livable. They allow for walkability and mass transit, reducing commute times and cost. They expose us to a diverse range of people, ideas, and experiences. They allow niche businesses and interests to thrive.
Dense cities multiply productivity. Companies benefit from close proximity to related businesses and customer bases. Workers in denser cities are more productive, especially in knowledge-based and creative industries.²
Dense cities are an environmental necessity. They allow us to preserve open spaces rather than sprawl into them. Our densest cities emit 70% less carbon per capita than the national average.³ Restricting urban density exacerbates climate change.
The most interesting, vibrant, creative cities welcome all kinds of people — including all races, genders, ages, abilities, and sexual orientations — and integrate them throughout the city. All professions must be able to live and thrive throughout the city. Teachers, nurses, artists, firefighters, plumbers, engineers, writers, managers, and waiters, among many others, are part of a complete community.
Cities must be open to newcomers while supporting long-time residents. We must grow to make room for immigrants, refugees, those moving for a new job, and our children and grandchildren, without pushing out current residents. We cannot be a place of sanctuary, an economic center, or a creative hub without making room for new residents and future generations.
The best cities are dynamic organisms, always evolving. They respect the past while actively creating the future. Today’s cities are the result of past development, and continued prosperity requires constant reinvention. We must allow for experimentation and embrace the uncertainty that comes with innovation. Attempting to encase cities in amber leads to stagnation and decline.
Healthy cities require productive economies to provide good wages, economic opportunity, and the tax dollars that enable public infrastructure and social services. Creating jobs, attracting immigrants, driving innovation, and supporting public services for all residents require a prosperous, growing economy.
Cities must ensure equitable opportunity, support, and representation for all residents, regardless of identity, length of tenure, or socioeconomic status. Housing, transportation, education, and social services must be distributed equitably across the city. The wealthiest, loudest, or most well-connected should not be able to direct city activity to their own benefit.
We must care for the most vulnerable in our community, ensuring their safety and well-being. In particular, we have the obligation and the means to ensure that everyone has their basic needs met. Ending homelessness is a moral imperative.
We believe the best way to realize these values is by pairing well-functioning markets with effective government, and we reject simplistic philosophies that lionize one and villainize the other. In particular, solving our housing crisis requires a housing market more responsive to demand as well as a government refocused on public investments and social protections.
Markets are an efficient tool for producing many types of goods and services, including housing. If there are fewer houses in a city than families who want to live there, housing prices will begin to rise, incentivizing builders to make more houses. When the demand is met, prices will stabilize near the cost of construction, new families will be able to afford moving to the city, and existing families will be able to afford staying there. In a well-functioning market, these changes occur gradually, in response to fluctuating supply and demand. In a distorted market, they don’t occur gradually, or at all.
Cities that allow housing supply to meet demand over time have better housing affordability than those that don’t.⁴ It is not necessary for the government to build housing directly, pick market winners, direct the details of development, or subject every individual housing project to elaborate processes. Such attempts, while often well-meaning, tend towards inefficiency, arbitrariness, self-interest, corruption, and inequity.
In fact, the current crisis is largely the direct result of constraints on the housing market. Zoning restrictions prohibit density: apartments are illegal in almost 75% of San Francisco,⁵ and vast areas of Greater Boston cannot legally be rebuilt under current zoning.⁶ Practices like redlining, which systematically denied mortgages to African-Americans, have historically legislated away diversity and encoded racism into our housing laws.⁷ Arduous bureaucratic processes preserve the status quo by indefinitely delaying building or making it unprofitable: discretionary review, CEQA review,⁸ and other city processes regularly add years to zoning-compliant housing in San Francisco,⁹ and city fees and requirements can add over $100,000 to the cost of every home.¹⁰ New development and social services like homeless shelters are often restricted to the areas with the least wealth and political power. The result of all these constraints is that only the largest, most expensive housing projects by those with the deepest pockets and best connections get built, and the costs are borne disproportionately by the most disadvantaged.
A well-functioning market must have the flexibility to respond to changes in housing demand. Prices will continue rising as long as there are more people who want to live in a city than there are homes for them to live in. Unless there are enough homes for everyone, we cannot welcome new residents without creating displacement.
Well-functioning markets alone will not achieve our goals. They must be paired with public infrastructure and services, social welfare systems, and market regulation. Government provides for these purposes.
City residents depend on their government for roads and sidewalks, buses and subways, schools and hospitals, police and firefighters, parks and community centers. For decades we have underinvested in public infrastructure, especially public transit, and services that promote economic opportunity, especially public schools.
Governments provide people the security to pursue the lives they choose. Markets do not generate the same outcome for everyone, and government insures people against the risks of creative destruction. Cities have a key role to play in providing for the vulnerable. In particular, the homeless suffer most from the housing crisis, and local governments have the responsibility to provide shelter for every last resident.
Well-functioning markets require fair, efficient, predictable rules set by government. These rules help protect the public and ensure market prices build in social costs. For the housing market, this primarily means reasonable zoning allowances, safety standards, and environmental laws. Government must also defend individuals against discrimination, ensuring equal opportunity, rights, and treatment for all residents. The effectiveness of such regulations is determined by whether they drive the intended outcomes, and we must defend against their subversion or unintended consequences.
Housing, transportation, and job markets do not stop at municipal borders, so it is important that we act at the regional, state, and national level to set rules and provide services that are fair to everyone. When we over-delegate decisions, we often end up with inequities — such as underfunded public schools in disadvantaged areas or the rejection of homeless shelters by neighborhoods — or tragedy of the commons situations — such as traffic congestion and climate change. In general, we should avoid setting housing policy at the local level, as this tends to result in wealthy enclaves pushing out costs onto their poorer, less powerful neighbors.
To make our cities more dense, more diverse, more dynamic, and more equitable, we seek to enact policies aligned with these beliefs.
We propose the following reforms to the functioning of the housing market:
- Upzone all city neighborhoods, including those currently restricted to single-family homes, while protecting existing low-income residents. This means raising height limits, legalizing apartments, and making it easier to add accessory dwelling units. Extra focus should be given to areas with access to mass transit. Spreading new housing out across the cities allows for increased density and diversity while mitigating the downsides of development concentrated in lower-income neighborhoods.
- Repeal zoning restrictions that prohibit mixed-use development. Blending residential, commercial, and cultural uses creates more liveable, more interesting neighborhoods, encourages walking and biking over driving, and reduces congestion and pollution.
- Make permitting by-right, meaning zoning rules are clearly defined and conforming buildings and businesses are automatically approved. A few loud voices should not have de facto veto power over new housing or the ability to bully small business owners.¹¹ Abolish discretionary review processes and amend laws like CEQA that are used as cudgels to prevent any new development.
- Favor housing subsidies over rent control. While price controls help some residents, they raise rents on newcomers,¹² they reduce the supply of housing,³ and the benefits accrue disproportionately to the already-advantaged.¹⁴ They do not solve the fundamental problem: there are not enough homes for those who want to live in our cities. Subsidies can more effectively target those in need, and can be paired with safeguards to protect the vulnerable from predatory practices, such as anti-price gouging rules.
- Prefer housing subsidies to below-market-rate lotteries. Subsidies are more effective at targeting the most needy and can reach all of them. Unlike price controls, subsidies don’t increase housing prices, don’t disincentivize new housing, and don’t create long waitlists for affordable homes.
- Use taxes to ensure market prices include costs to society and to incentivize their reduction. Examples include carbon taxes and congestion pricing. Avoid unpriced subsidies for activities with high societal costs, such as free parking or minimum parking requirements.
We propose the following reforms to the priorities of the government:
- Tax equitably, with a focus on land value over productive economic activity, so we can fund the government without creating harmful distortions. Taxes should not discriminate by residential tenure, so that moving within or across cities is not disincentivized, nor between homeownership and renting.
- Directly support the housing-vulnerable, including with housing vouchers, cash transfers, and social services. Markets will not always allocate resources equitably, and subsidies are better than price controls at targeting those most in need and mitigating displacement risk. Invest in supportive housing that delivers integrated services to the most vulnerable.
- Deliver the services necessary to achieve zero unsheltered homelessness, including shelters, health programs, and drug programs. We support a right to shelter, and we should build enough shelter beds to have zero wait list. Our homeless neighbors are victims of our larger housing crisis, and they deserve our help.
- Prioritize public services that promote economic mobility, particularly public schools and early childhood services in underprivileged neighborhoods. The disparities across neighborhoods and cities are significant, and everyone deserves an equal opportunity.
- Ensure every resident has access to affordable, efficient, pleasant transportation. Expand mass transit to underserved dense areas and promote multimodal mobility in order to alleviate congestion, reduce emissions, and promote equity. Break up cartels and replace supply constraints with congestion and carbon pricing, allowing active competition to best serve the entire population.
- Increase long-term investments in public infrastructure, including for climate change adaptation.
If we wish to realize dense, diverse, dynamic, equitable cities, we must start by looking at the world as it is and fighting for tangible outcomes. Magical thinking and virtue signaling will not move us forward. But real progress is possible. If we take concrete action, we can build cities that make room for everyone.
- United Nations: World’s population increasingly urban with more than half living in urban areas
- CityLab: Why Denser Cities Are Smarter and More Productive
- United Nations Population Fund: Urban Density and Climate Change
- Sightline Institute: Yes, You Can Build Your Way to Affordable Housing
- deapthoughts.com: SF Zoning Map
- CityCommentary: The Illegal City of Somerville
- Richard Rothstein: The Color of Law
- California Environmental Quality Act Lawsuits and California’s Housing Crisis, Russian bathhouse sues SF over India Basin project — wants views, privacy preserved
- Curbed SF: San Francisco delays Mission housing over potentially historic laundromat
- Mountain View Voice, Meyers Research
- Mission Local
- Diamond, McQuade, & Qian: The Effects of Rent Control Expansion on Tenants, Landlords, and Inequality
- The Case for Preserving Costa-Hawkins: Three Ways Rent Control Reduces the Supply of Rental Housing
- NMHC: The High Cost of Rent Control