Divided We Fall: The Necessary & Incomplete Platforms of Warring Housing Advocates (Part 1)

(This is the first in a two-part series examining how YIMBYs and Leftists each offer necessary but incomplete solutions to the housing crisis, which are symbiotic but often treated as mutually exclusive. This week, I focus on YIMBY solutions and their shortcomings. Next week, I will turn to Leftist policies, and lay out a unified vision for addressing the housing crisis.)

As our crushing housing crisis continues to plague American states and cities, effective policy answers remain stubbornly elusive. Comprehensive national solutions feel impossibly far off, and local measures tend to be either largely symbolic or half-a-loaf. While the original sins that led to today’s skyrocketing rents and rampant displacement were committed by predatory banks and redlining white supremacist policymakers, our present epidemic of stillborn solutions springs mainly from factions of left-leaning housing activists refusing to abandon their purism and join forces.

Successful governance runs through coalition, even when it may not seem like it. Humanity is simply of too many minds to allow a single group of ideologues to rule unilaterally (absent consistent state violence or its constant threat). Most modern democracies run parliamentary systems, governing explicitly through coalitions. When the government leans left in these nations, for instance, it is generally due to Greens joining Socialists joining Communists joining Liberals to cobble together a functional majority.

In the United States, and our constituent states and cities, governing coalitions go incognito, but nonetheless pervade politics. Barack Obama was elected president by suburban and rural economic populists tacitly aligning with urban multiculturalist liberals and civil libertarians. Obamacare passed through the coalition efforts of labor unions and nurses, doctors and hospitals, pharmaceutical manufacturers, and Medicare-for-All advocates like Bernie Sanders. For most of the push for the bill, any of those groups jumping ship would have sunk the effort.

Similar dynamics play out at the state and local level, where interest groups and interested parties weather uncomfortable alliances to pass common priorities, or split apart and scuttle reform. Governors, state representatives, and city councils take office through platforms and promises designed to appeal to a broad array of ideological groups, and the loss of one or two of those groups often means the loss of their office. Thus, the threat of those groups abandoning a politician can scare that politician away from reform. This is how proposals live or die in America. This is the context under which the housing policy debate rages.

Yet the two most prominent blocs of left-leaning housing activists refuse to accept this basic truth. Leftists and YIMBYs, each convinced of their own righteousness, have sunk one another’s efforts, over and over assassinating good policy in the name of their perfect idea. While the two groups together could likely muster the political will to pass sweeping reform in this moment of crisis, as mutual opposition they muster only mutually assured destruction.

This all-or-nothing ideological impasse proves particularly ironic, considering neither group’s platform could adequately solve housing’s most pressing political and policy problems on its own – but taken together, both possibly could.

To somewhat oversimplify the roots of the problem, the American housing crisis flows from:

  • A multi-million unit shortage of homes that empowers landlords to evict tenants, massively jack up rents, or both;
  • Massive wealth inequality and widespread poverty keeping huge swaths of the population from ever affording market-rate housing;
  • Exclusionary zoning blocking potentially affordable multi-family homes from being built in livable communities; and
  • Politicians afraid of any perception of their actions making the problem worse.

YIMBY policies chart a path to end the home shortage and economically integrate communities walled off by exclusionary zoning but offer no salve for the people suffering housing insecurity. Leftist proposals can tend to the raw economic wounds of the housing crisis but fall short of addressing the systems that keep affordable homes in short supply. To succeed, we need both. For the moment, let us observe what YIMBYism can and cannot solve.

YIMBYs aptly identify the basic roots of the housing crisis: widespread single-family zoning. Originally designed by redlining segregationists to create tacit neighborhood bans on people who cannot afford their own private plot of expensive land, these exclusionary zones have become an unquestioned status quo just about everywhere.

When cities attract new people and force them to compete for too few homes, land gets pricier, which forces up rents. YIMBYs recognize that the only workable way to handle this is to allow communities of people who cannot afford big plots of property alone to split the cost of the land through duplexes, triplexes, apartments, et. al.

Doing this at scale requires economically integrating those previously walled-off neighborhoods (a satisfying end on its own, even without the myriad social benefits). More homes in less space mean cheaper homes for everybody. The evidence overwhelmingly supports this.

Yet for policy and political reasons, building more homes is not enough. Building homes (especially densely nestled homes like apartments) can take years, and markets often respond to supply changes gradually. Even if rezoning somehow triggered building all the homes to need to solve the shortfall (consider me dubious), years would continue to pass with many people suffering housing insecurity or homelessness. “The market will eventually work itself out” offers cold comfort for a family facing eviction or rent spike.

The political pitfalls with supply-only approaches may prove more problematic. Building more homes will not end evictions or abate huge rent hikes. People will continue to hurt under the housing crisis, and voters will quickly grow skeptical of the reform while it takes root, especially as NIMBYs attack it mercilessly and blame it when rents continue to rise for some time.

ObamaCare offers a useful lesson here. The ACA completed the journey toward popular policy in 2017, following eight years of toxicity under constant assault from Republicans and the survival of a health care system that remains far from perfect. Years of uninterrupted, apocalyptic criticism against the policy sunk in before the benefits did, and it catapulted its opponents to office. It wasn’t until the policy was on the chopping block that people embraced it. This is the problem with market-based reforms. Even when they help huge portions of the population, people rarely recognize the impact in real time. This makes them delicate, and in particular peril of repeal.

In the face of these vulnerabilities and shortcomings, Leftist policies show promise. Smart rent stabilization (like the limitations on the size and frequency of rent increases used in Germany), no-cause eviction mitigation (like Portland is piloting now), and guaranteed legal counsel in eviction court (which New York is now using) can take effect immediately, and offer immediate relief to cost-burdened renters. These policies not only provide tangible help to current cost-burdened renters, they create breathing room for YIMBY solutions to take palpable effect.

Some YIMBYs will say that rent stabilization measures constrain supply, and thus cannot be embraced. Much of the evidence against rent control pertains to permanent rent caps (which I am not suggesting, and can be counterproductive). Rather I am encouraging measured policies to limit the ability of landlords to price gouge. These measures and the other measures above have shown to be effective to lower rents, and the perverse effects some have observed can generally be ascribed to supply constraints that have accompanied them.

Social housing also fills a need that YIMBY policies cannot completely satisfy. Many homeless and low-income people can likely never afford market-rate homes, no matter how saturated the market becomes. Building publicly owned homes for these individuals and families can ensure shelter for all people, regardless of their social station. Of course, ending exclusionary zoning is necessary for social housing to take root, but that is a topic for the second installment of this series.

YIMBY analysis understands much about the housing crisis – its driving forces, racist roots, and the long-term pathway out of it. Yet, like many market-oriented perspectives, YIMBYism falls short on immediately, palpably effective solutions. By abandoning its market purism, and embracing some of the best ideas of Leftists, YIMBYs can improve their cause, and come closer to solving the crisis.

Tune in next week for the second half of this series – the upsides & limitations of the leftist housing agenda.