Opinion | America’s Housing Crisis Is a Choice

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The United States, you might know by now, is in the throes of a housing crisis: Across the country, Americans are running out of affordable places to live.

This was true even before the coronavirus swept the globe, when hundreds of thousands of Americans, if not millions, were homeless, nearly half of renters were cost-burdened, and close to two-thirds said they couldn’t afford to buy a home. And while some hoped last year that the pandemic would transform the nation’s cities into beacons of affordability, it’s a hope that in recent months has proved short lived.

How did housing become so expensive in the United States, and how can the problem be solved? Here’s what people are saying.

As Nicole Friedman explains in The Wall Street Journal, the housing crisis can be understood as a 20-year-old supply-and-demand problem:

  • Between 1968 and 2000, the United States built an average of about 1.5 million new housing units every year. But in the past two decades, in part because of a slowdown during the Great Recession, the country has added only 1.225 million new housing units every year.

  • Today, the country is 6.8 million units short of what was needed to meet new housing needs and to replace units that were aging or destroyed by natural disasters.

The upshot: Between 2001 and 2019, median rents rose faster than median renter incomes in nearly every state, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. In only 7 percent of counties can a minimum-wage worker afford a one-bedroom rental.

So why hasn’t more housing been built? The rising costs of labor and lumber are one reason, according to a recent report from Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. But as Vox’s Jerusalem Demsas explains, supply issues also stem in large part from restrictive regulations — such as single-family zoning, minimum lot sizes and parking lot requirements — that artificially limit the amount of housing that can be built. These regulations, which have historically served to entrench segregation, can in turn be used by vocal citizens to block new development, a phenomenon known as Nimbyism: not in my backyard.

Nimbyism is a bipartisan disposition, but some of its most acute harms are felt in liberal cities and states. In California, for example, where anyone can object to new construction under the guise of a 1970 environmental protection law, around one-quarter of the cost of building affordable housing goes to government fees, permits and consulting companies. “It’s not uncommon for a project in California to be mired for many years in paperwork over zoning or objections by other property owners before ground is broken,” The Times’s Thomas Fuller explains. As a result, San Francisco has the highest overall construction costs in the world: A two-bedroom apartment of “affordable housing” costs around $750,000 just to build.

Homeowners have a vested interest in this policy regime. “For all the animosity targeted at developers, landlords, and bankers, the largest group of beneficiaries from regulations that restrict housing supply aren’t these for-profit corporations,” Jenny Schuetz of Brookings writes. “Homeowners who were lucky enough to purchase their houses in earlier periods have enjoyed substantial wealth gains, most of which are exempt from taxation. Small wonder that homeowners exert their political muscle to continue restricting new housing supply.”

Federal policy has also contributed to housing inequality, as Patrick Sisson, Jeff Andrews and Alex Bazeley write for Curbed. Since the 1970s, the federal government has prevented any expansion of public housing stock while slashing assistance programs for renters, which affordable-housing advocates say made homelessness a fixture of American life. And by allowing mortgage interest to be deducted from taxable income, the government effectively spends more money on tax breaks for homeowners than it does on all rental subsidies and public housing.

If the cause of the housing crisis is a shortage of housing, isn’t the solution — or at least a necessary part of the solution — to build more of it? That’s the working theory of Yimbyism, a growing movement of policy thinkers and activists who are urging lawmakers and homeowners to say “yes, in my backyard.”

“Yimbys push for reductions on zoning restrictions to increase the supply of housing, reasoning that all new housing, market-rate as well as subsidized, helps to keep housing prices under control,” Roderick M. Hills Jr., a law professor at New York University, explained in The Washington Post in 2018.

The evidence: Recent research suggests that Yimbys have a point. A 2019 analysis of New York City, for example, found that for every 10 percent increase in housing stock within a 500-foot radius, rents decrease by 1 percent (sales prices also decrease). Another analysis of San Francisco from this June found that within 100 meters of new construction, rents fall by 2 percent and renters’ risk of displacement to a lower-income neighborhood falls by 17 percent.

Yimbys often point to Tokyo as a real-life counterexample to American cities: Known for its permissive development policies, Tokyo has expanded its supply of homes in recent years by roughly 2 percent a year, while New York’s housing supply has expanded by only about 0.5 percent a year. Over the past two decades, housing prices spiked in New York but held steady in Tokyo at slightly below $1,000 a month for a two-bedroom unit.

As popular as the goal of reining in housing costs may be, Yimbys have made unlikely enemies of some progressives who share it. Ananya Roy, for example, a professor of urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles, has criticized Yimbyism as a movement that centers the concerns of upper-middle-class, white professionals while ignoring the concerns of those who are truly on the front lines of the housing crisis.

One of those concerns is that a single-minded focus on increasing the housing supply will merely lead to more luxury buildings, real estate speculation and displacement without actually reducing average rents. A recent paper by Jenna Davis, a Ph.D student in urban planning at Columbia, found that upzoning — a key Yimby priority that allows for taller and denser construction — is associated with an area becoming whiter, at least in the short term.

Tenant activists — as well as some self-identified Yimbys — therefore argue that development must be paired with eviction penalties, rent control and other regulations that protect tenants against displacement. And to truly bring prices down, the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project has claimed, 60 percent of new development would need to be set aside for below-market-rate units.

And in the end, many Yimbys and tenant activists agree that the housing crisis cannot be solved through the market alone. Why? “The private market on its own never supplies an adequate number of affordable homes for the lowest-income renters,” says Dan Threet, a research analyst at the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “There are just no incentives for the private market to do that. It requires government intervention and subsidy.”

Exactly what that intervention should look like is another subject of debate. Some progressives argue that the government should simply build millions of new public housing units, as Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota has proposed. “In the age of neoliberalism, far too much time and money has been spent on trying to coax private markets into accomplishing policy objectives,” Ryan Cooper and Saoirse Gowan write in Jacobin.

But while public housing has worked well in other countries, it has a troubled history of racial and class segregation in the United States, as The Times’s Binyamin Appelbaum notes. It would be preferable, he argues, to subsidize private development in areas that need affordable housing most through land, tax credits and direct government spending. On the tenant side, the federal government should also expand its housing voucher program, which currently benefits only one in four eligible families.

President Biden, for his part, has promised to take steps in this direction with his infrastructure plan. And on Monday, the Senate released a budget resolution calling for $332 billion in housing-related spending. The details of that plan — and its chances of passing in a narrowly divided Senate — will become clearer in the coming weeks.

Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at [email protected]. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.

“How Berkeley Beat Back Nimbys” [The New York Times]

“The Fight to End Single Family Zoning and the Yimby/Nimby/Phimby War” [Time to Say Goodbye]

“The Californians Are Coming. So Is Their Housing Crisis.” [The New York Times]

“Is Yimbyism the Answer to America’s Housing Crisis?” [The New Republic]

“How Homeownership Became the Engine of American Inequality” [The New York Times]

Here’s what a reader had to say about the last debate: The Delta variant and school reopening

Susan from New Jersey: “Most articles on reopening schools with Covid and particularly the Delta variant, a persistent threat, fail to address the difficulties of teaching and learning with masks. Most people want children back in school and bemoan hybrid and/or remote learning. However, as a teacher, it is cumbersome and ineffective to teach with masks on and to understand students with masks on. Remote learning eliminates the need for masks and communication is greatly improved. Additionally, many schools are not air-conditioned and wearing masks when a classroom is 90 degrees or above is abysmal. Until the Covid vaccine becomes a mandate like so many others students need to attend school, the in-person model will not garner the educational results of prepandemic times.”