History and Housing Policy

Here’s a post on LA Streetsblog by David Levitus, an urban history PhD doing interesting work as leader of a policy and civic engagement nonprofit focused on metropolitan California. Housing is a big deal in the Golden State, with a barbell-shaped income distribution stressing housing affordability and intense debate erupting over what to do about it.

Levitus is mostly concerned here with the emergence of “YIMBY” advocates for deregulated housing construction. YIMBY is a generally developer-friendly position, holding that density, height, and other restrictions make the production of sufficient volume of housing impossible. With what Levitus calls

clear villains and Econ 101 logic at work

YIMBY arguments have gained considerable traction, and are reflected in state legislation that seeks to vigorously enforce local housing production goals and remove restrictions, particularly on large, dense developments near transit. The bill’s sponsor claims an equity and social justice rationale, claiming that this will reverse the exclusion of the working poor from desirable and transit-accessible neighborhoods, as Levitus notes:

In Wiener’s telling, the bill is about equity. He writes “The only way we will make housing more affordable and significantly reduce displacement is to build a lot more housing and to do so in urbanized areas accessible to public transportation.” More audaciously, he frames S.B. 827 as a measure that “tackles head on the ugly reality that mandated low-density zoning excludes poor people and—per the intent when low-density zoning was created 100 years ago—people of color.”

Yet, as Levitus argues, confidence that a simple approach of fostering an increase in the volume of housing stock available will reduce inequity or increase low-income Californians’ access to good housing, depends on a misreading of metropolitan history. Levitus examines several waves of US housing policy to conclude that growth has been perfectly compatible with exclusion, and that long-wave cycles of disinvestment and gentrification show that

There is a lot of money to be made by moving the color line

as investment of housing capital in poor areas bears no necessary connection to housing the residents of those areas (I blogged a while back on Michael Greenberg’s outstanding NYRB article on New York’s deficient plan to supply affordable housing through incentives to high-end developers).

Levitus calls for a revival of past housing movements that sought to build housing not as a commodity but as habitation within networks of employment and social support.

The housing justice movement by and large understands the concept of supply and demand, despite YIMBY’s complaints otherwise. Yet housing justice movements — part of a long line of “housers” and progressives interested in equitable transit-oriented development — are able to see that left alone to produce housing, the market will not meet the needs of a large proportion of the population. That was true in the late 19th century, as slums emerged. It was true in the mid-twentieth century heyday of redlining and subsidized suburbanization and urban redevelopment. And it is true today when redlining and other forms of discrimination and exploitation of the less privileged continue. The market alone does not produce good outcomes for communities who were denied the ability to accumulate wealth in previous housing booms, through redlining and because of an overall economy that has grown increasingly unequal over the last four decades.

 

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