Local control sounds great in theory

The New York Times Editorial Board has another fire piece about how four candidates for Dem nominee have national housing plans, speaking to the urgent need to do something about the fact that rents across the US are rising as wages stay flat, increasing the number of households that are rent burdened. One Democratic pollster asked voters whether they thought housing affordability was a fairly or very serious problem. In 2016, 39% said it was. This year, 60% agreed. And 75% of voters said a plan for making housing more affordable would help win their vote.

Rents are rising because cities aren’t building enough homes, especially apartments. Homeowners have a stranglehold on local governments, which mandate suburban sprawl by zoning large swaths of land for single-family homes only.

Cory Booker, Julian Castro, and Elizabeth Warren have plans that use federal tax dollars for infrastructure projects to incentivize cities to permit new home construction. You build more homes, you get more roads.

Local control sounds great in theory, especially for libertarians. But in reality local control is older, wealthier, whiter people voting themselves more wealth on the backs of the less well-off. Ironically, the problem is worst in the bluest cities. The same people with “Immigrants welcome here” signs in their windows will passionately exclaim in a city council meeting that a fourplex on their street will “destroy neighborhood character.”

The Multnomah Neighborhood Association raised $70,000 from affluent homeowners to block new middle-income housing. In SF wealthy homeowners donated more than $100,000 to hire a lawyer to sue to keep the city from setting up a homeless shelter on public land in their neighborhood.

“Where protest movements and civil disobedience were once primarily the tools of the marginalized, they have now become a weapon of privilege — a way for older, wealthier, mostly white homeowners to drown out and intimidate anyone who challenges their hegemony,” Michael Hobbes wrote.

Plus, since land-use regulations and discretionary review for new home construction permits deprive homeowners of their property rights, then deregulating land use is the free-market position. I suspect it’s purely an issue of how homeowners vote that it’s not a bigger focus for libertarians and Republicans. Thankfully, the Times reports that some Senate Republicans are on board with incentivizing cities to build, and Trump recently created a council to look into it.

States are also reforming their land-use regulations. Minneapolis just eliminated single-family zoning in December. Oregon followed suit this month.

Kamala Harris wants only rent subsidies, which will only enrich landlords. And Booker, Castro, Harris, and Warren want to promote homeownership. I couldn’t agree less with this approach. I personally got burned by the last government attempt to promote homeownership. First of all, it’s just not the government’s place to incentivize owning over renting. Second, it’s not at all clear that homeownership is a great idea. It forces people to stay in place for at least five years or lose any gain, which leads to a more stagnant economy and less economic opportunity for families. Plus, what happens when the factory closes? If everyone owns their home, they’re all stuck. If they’re renting, the landlords are stuck. The fact that we treat homes as investments and not places to live is a lot of why we have housing crises. I’m not sure you can have homes be safe investments/pathways to the middle class and housing affordability across all income groups. I’m not necessarily against owning a home, but I don’t think it’s something that should be subsidized.

Rather than promoting homeownership or subsidizing rent, why not start by not publicly funding neighborhood groups that block housing? And for God’s sake end the Mortgage Interest Tax Deduction.

While I don’t love any of the plans, I’m glad to see the candidates talking about housing and coming up with ideas.

One Comment

  1. Tray Davis

    Agree with you 100%. The idea that everyone should own their home is a peculiar American mythology. Many more Europeans rent, as I am sure you know.

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