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Affordable Housing Is Easy. In Theory.

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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If a city full of liberal technocrats can't make affordable housing happen locally, what hope is there for the federal government to achieve that nationally? Well, Washington's failures have not deterred the White House from dreaming.

Its proposals are eminently sensible: streamline permitting processes, zone for larger dwellings, and most importantly, allow developers to build “of right,” which is to say, if they’ve met the zoning requirements, they should be able to put up the building without further interference from the local community.

These proposals are easy enough to make. What's harder is to actually generate affordable housing.

Washington is full of the sort of people who both read, and passionately favor, proposals like those put out by the White House.  Our recent attempt at reforming our zoning code liberalized “accessory dwelling units” (basement and garage apartments) -- and then chopped five feet off the maximum height for buildings in much of the District, the better to prevent developers from adding another floor and turning a single-family home into two condos. Across the country, in California, a similarly sensible and high-minded effort by Governor Jerry Brown recently died at the hands of a coalition of environmental groups, community organizers, and construction unions (who use the various building holdups to extract higher wages for their workers).

The problem, in other words, is not figuring out what to do. There's an obvious step when demand exceeds supply: build more supply. It doesn’t really matter what sort of units you build; the most desirable units will be snapped up by the affluent, while the price of the less desirable units falls into the range of more limited budgets. There will be some people at the bottom whose incomes will not stretch to any amount of rent, but that is always true. "Affordable housing" is not envisioned to be free.

The problem, then, is figuring out how to take that obvious step -- in the face of community opposition. And doing that involves acknowledging that most people really don’t like living in high rises, or near poor people, and that the legal revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s have allowed affluent elites to make those wishes come true, at the expense of everyone else. The existing communities that look like what affordable housing advocates envision were by and large built before courts and legislators decided that “society” ought to have lots of veto power over things you wanted to do with your property. Those days are long gone, and so too is our ability to slap a high rise on every street corner.

In a better world, people would want to build an inclusive, economically diverse community in which everyone had access to the same services. In the real world, many people are all in favor of this -- as long as doing so does not involve sending their kids to school with poor people, especially in the crucial middle and high school years, when peer effects start to dominate parental influence. Washington’s good liberals don't say anything so crude, of course; they talk about “test scores.” But nonetheless, if you try to rezone in a way that is apt to produce a truly economically diverse school, with more than a token sprinkling of the children of disadvantage, they will fight tooth and nail to stop that from happening.

Even the childless, or those whose hatchlings have long since fled the nest, have good reason for disliking your development plans. I grew up on the 15th  floor of a New York City apartment building; I now live in a typical Washington row house. And there is no question to me that my lower, quieter neighborhood is in most ways a better place to live. If the dog needs to go out in the middle of the night, I can open the back door and let him out, rather than getting dressed, leashing him up, and riding down the elevator to supervise his excretions. I know most of the people who live on my block, at least by sight. I have more space and more light than most of my neighbors enjoyed in my childhood. And I can look out my window to gently blowing leaves rather than concrete.

Allowing high rises to be built in my neighborhood would change that. It would bring large numbers of strangers, overwhelm the convenient street parking I now enjoy, and add a lot of noise and other urban annoyances. There’s substantial evidence that the stress of living in a dense city can make you crazy. I could be forgiven for thinking that I’m already quite crazy enough.

Nonetheless I have avidly supported the building of a new high rise in my neighborhood every time the subject has come up. I am firmly in favor of upzoning everything to Empire State Building proportions. But I have a reflexive suspicion of any government intrusion on property rights. Most of my neighbors do not, especially when government is intruding on their behalf. (Ultimately this makes my stand an easy one to take; I can advocate for all these wonderful things secure in the knowledge that any such move will be blocked by my neighbors and assorted special interests.)

If we want affordable housing, we need only one thing from all these toolkits and roadmaps and best practices: a political theory of how to advocate for changes as fiercely as other special interests oppose them. Talk at dinner parties is all very well, but it will avail nothing against people who are well organized and willing to do more than talk.

Unfortunately, because the costs of the status quo are diffuse, and often fall on people who don’t yet live or vote in the city, while the benefits are concentrated among people who will work hard to keep them, I suspect that the future of affordable housing initiatives looks a lot like the present.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net