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The Rent Is Too Damn High
My title echoes the campaign slogan of Jimmie McMillan, who ran for New York governor in 2010, among other endeavors. I thought the slogan was genius. These days it points to what could be a sleeper issue for Democrats nationwide. Housing affordability is decreasing, but this is a problem of multiple dimensions for Democratic voters.
The formation of the current partisan divide has been shown to be consistent with an average gap in educational attainment, not just in the U.S. but in Western Europe as well. What’s newer, and worrisome, is the contrast in the nature of partisanship between the national and local levels of government.
Nationally the Democrats have serious political advantages in their support for reproductive rights, thanks to the far-right Supreme Court majority, and in the spectacles created by Trump and his followers. Locally, I want to argue, the situation is different, and dangerous.
The ballast in Democratic support has shifted to an important extent from the white working class to upper-income suburbs. People in the latter places are relatively congenial to people of color and non-standard sexual and gender orientations. They also care deeply about the well-being of their children in public schools. One basis for moving to suburbs in the first place, where real estate and property taxes can be high, is to take advantage of better schools.
A new source of divisiveness in the public school arena is the treatment of diversity, sexual preference, and gender identity. Loudoun County, Va., has been one of the national stages for such fights, as I have been reporting myself on this website. Gender identity is not well-understood and can arouse bitter hostility.
I’m going to get to housing. Stay with me.
Transphobia is easily and often linked to slander directed at LGBTQI persons of all types, and from there is it’s just a short hop to the Critical Race Theory “woke” craziness. My experience is that in the face of this, local Democrats invoke civility, decency, and being kind to animals. Our local MAGAs, by contrast, speak to the full spectrum of prejudices while upholding the national manias popularized by the previous president. Who prevails in this contest is an open question, though in 2021, in allegedly purple-trending-blue Virginia, it was Republicans who took successful advantage.
We had a similar brouhaha a few years earlier centered on transgender bathroom policy. It eventually fizzled, which led me to predict a repeat in 2021. I was wrong.
Where does housing come in? Democrats’ political fortunes rest on the uncertain reed of upscale suburban inclinations to benevolence towards the less fortunate but geograhically distant.
The dirty secret of our upscale, suburban liberals is that they fear their neighborhoods and real estate wealth would be diminished by in-migration. In consequence, they favor restrictions in housing supply. As I recounted in my review of Rick Kahlenberg’s book, the chief mechanism of exclusion is zoning that limits new home construction to single family houses on lots of a minimum size, possibly including requirements for a certain number of parking spaces. More generally, local development is subject to a thicket of regulatory provisions and procedures.
The public face of this in Loudoun is “preserving our rural or agricultural way of life.” What rubbish. There is no agriculture taking place on one-acre lots. Nobody in the U.S. is going to go hungry because some landowner in Virginia is allowed to cash out his land thanks to approval for residential development. A different appeal might be founded on environmental concerns, even though residential density is better for the environment; it makes for less traffic, private auto use, and electricity consumption.
In more urban locations, the pitch, aside from ordinary NIMBYism, could be framed as a benefit for historic preservation.
Either way, the upshot is the strengthening of economic segregation, which in the U.S. implies a degree of racial segregation as well. By soft-peddling this problem, suburban Democrats in Loudoun are selling out their non-white, lower-income constituents for the sake of votes in the western half of the county. The use of homeownership to build wealth is similarly curtailed, with the disparate racial impacts we have come to observe. Further, housing access determines access to high-quality public schools, and all the benefits that follow from that.
Trump tried to capitalize on this problem by blathering about protecting the “Suburban Lifestyle Dream” (from THEM). He failed because no tangible threat to the suburbs was visible. Now local MAGA agitation is concocting such a threat issuing from public schools. Transgender perverts are stalking girls’ bathrooms, and Critical Race Theory indoctrination is clouding the minds of the young.
Meanwhile, declines in housing affordability will liven up voters the Democrats ought to be after. Restrictive zoning is a worthy target, but it threatens blowback from the suburban constituency upon which the Democratic Party has come to rely. Some finesse is required in dealing with this problem, but as housing affordability continues to wane, the dilemma will be harder to avoid.
Social housing and rent control are relevant policies, but they are not going to open up the suburbs. The first requires public revenue, not easily carved out of other uses. The second only helps urban residents who have already secured housing. Reforms that do not reduce the complexity of local zoning regulations, and that preserve a setting in which moneyed interests, supported by their lawyers and experts, continue to dominate, will be inadequate. There needs to be more encompassing reform. An example was an initiative in Oregon that significantly cut back on the scope of single-family zoning.
The market rate for housing is socially constructed. It needs to be crammed down. It could be objected that incomes are too low, not that housing is too expensive. Both can be true. In the absence of any boost to housing availability, higher incomes could easily give rise to higher housing costs. There is no getting away from the supply problem.