The Rent is Too Damn High, Part 2— Where Do We Go From Here? — Arcadia Political Review, Fall 2020

The Politics and Policy of Housing

President Wiener exercises executive authority, circa 2050

This article was published in the Fall 2020 issue of the Arcadia Political Review, available online here.

In my last article, I summarized some of the root causes of the housing crisis gripping urban American and how a small group of rent seekers have worked to perpetuate scarcity for their own gain. In this article, I’ll explore the different coalitions that have formed around the messy politics of housing, the pro-housing policies on the table, and the importance of planning beyond 2020.

Unlike nearly every other issue in the United States, housing politics (though certainly polarized) weren’t especially partisan until late August of 2020. In 2018, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson began pushing against exclusionary zoning, a tool used by rent seekers to keep their neighborhoods segregated by race and class. The move surprised liberal and leftist housing activists (most of whom applauded it despite their skepticism) but fit ideologically with the Republican Party’s professed love of free markets and deregulation. This push set the initial tone for federal housing discourse, signalling to Republican legislators that the party would support their efforts to lower nationwide housing costs and prompting representatives Danny Heck (D-WA) and Trey Hollingsworth (R-IN) to introduce the YIMBY (for Yes In My Backyard) Act, which passed the House without opposition. August’s RNC changed this tone entirely. Realizing that he was losing ground with suburban women, President Trump made “defending” suburbs a primary plank of his reelection campaign, making racist comments about a suburban “invasion” and penning an op-ed with Dr. Carson himself about the “ultraliberal” plot to diversify suburbs. The McCloskeys, the couple in St. Louis who infamously waved guns at peaceful protestors, used their time at the RNC to passionately defend single family zoning. Yet Christian Britschgi’s (somewhat facetious) take in Reason Magazine, “Trump Appeals to Progressive Voters With Promise To Defend Suburbs Against New Housing Development” illustrates another frustrating facet of housing discourse: the disunity of Democrats in the face of the crisis.

For decades, housing discourse within California politics has been between two camps: liberals, many of whom are renters and urbanites, and conservatives, many of whom are homeowners and suburbanites. In the absence of any real Republican party apparatus, California conservatives tend to vote for Democrats opposed to any real housing reform (especially in traditionally red areas like Orange County) while liberal Democrats vote for pro-housing party members like Asm. Buffy Wicks or Asm. David Chiu. However, the rise of the socialist left in hyperliberal metropolises has changed that calculus. Informally, housing activists refer to the two sides of the socialist left as the “holy alliance” and the “unholy alliance.” The holy alliance is made up of leftists who oppose inclusionary zoning and support more housing in cities, especially if that housing is socially owned or rented below market rate, while the unholy alliance is opposed to both zoning reform and any new housing that isn’t 100% affordable (and even some that is) for aesthetic or accelerationist reasons. Nationally, the holy alliance is dominant — both Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are vocal supporters of more housing and repealing apartment bans — but at the local level, candidates like the SF DSA’s Jackie Fielder have been happy to regurgitate the talking points of notorious NIMBY groups like Livable California as they attempt to unseat progressive and effective housing champions like Sen. Scott Wiener.

Senator Wiener has been at the heart of the housing discourse in both California and the rest of the country since his election as State Senator in 2016. In collaboration with the nascent YIMBY movement, he has been extremely prolific, proposing numerous bills to deal with the state’s crippling housing deficit (among numerous others concerning LGBTQ+ rights, police reform, and the environment.). The most famous of these bills was SB50 — a climate-oriented approach to housing that would have forced cities to allow slightly denser housing to be built near public transportation. The bill was narrowly killed by SoCal’s NIMBY state senators, but will likely make a comeback next year as a new crop of progressives win seats. Governor Newsom made housing a key part of his 2018 campaign, yet was ineffective in actually passing policy that would reduce our 3.5M million home shortage, refusing to lobby for any of this session’s serious housing bills. As California has failed spectacularly to make real progress at the state level, some YIMBYs have begun looking to the next presidential administration to combat inaccessible housing prices.

“The magic of Joe Biden is that everything he does becomes the new reasonable.” — Andrew Yang

It’s unlikely that we’ll see anything as ambitious as SB50 pushed at the federal level, even if Democrats do manage to win a trifecta in January’s special elections. However, Joe Biden’s plan for housing is, as Vox’s Matt Yglesias puts it, “surprisingly visionary.” The plan calls for making Section 8 an entitlement, giving access to housing vouchers to the 11 million families who qualify for but haven’t been able to access them due to underfunding. This alone is estimated to reduce child poverty by over a third, as well as total poverty by more than 20%. Biden has also embraced Sen. Cory Booker’s plan to tie federal grant money to the removal of some exclusionary zoning, though this hinges on communities valuing money more than “neighborhood character,” which local opposition to new development (and property taxes) has shown is a trade off many wealthy Americans are willing to make.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, clickbait articles have been proclaiming the end of America’s superstar cities. They cite nosediving rents, rapid depopulation, and empty AirBnBs as evidence that cities are “over.” As welcome as the rent decreases may have been, we cannot allow NIMBY politicians to use a temporary downswing to block the radical change we’ll still need after this is over. Cities will bounce back more prosperous and productive than ever, especially as working from home is normalized and people are free to move to the most desirable locations instead of being tied down to their offices. Joe Biden’s agenda will (hopefully) set the tone of the next decade of housing politics, but federal Democrats can’t do all of the heavy lifting for us. It’s more important than ever that all Americans push their local, state, and federal representatives to say yes to housing, yes to density, and yes to more neighbors.

If you’re interested in getting involved in housing activism, I would highly recommend checking out YIMBY Action, one of the most inclusive and effective pro-housing groups in the United States.

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