So how are these two conflicting ideas to be reconciled? Well, that’s the basic challenge of housing policy. Perhaps a start would be to acknowledge that there is, in fact, a tension here—that “protecting” or “promoting” property values is the same thing as “making housing more expensive.” It’s somewhat discouraging, for example, when community organizations claim that “affordability doesn’t mean housing values have to remain stagnant,” without acknowledging that if housing values aren’t stagnant—i.e., they’re growing—that means they’re also becoming less affordable.
But there is some hope. One thing that could help is robust production of housing that isn’t priced by the market, and therefore isn’t affected by rising market prices. That can be accomplished through public housing, privately-developed affordable housing with programs such as the low-income housing tax credit and housing vouchers. At the moment, few places produce non-market housing at anything close to a scale that would provide broad affordability, but there are encouraging examples: Portland, for instance, has created 2,300 units of affordable housing in its redeveloping Pearl District, adjacent to downtown, financed largely by taxes.
In many places, having a wide variety of housing types and sizes can also make room for people with a wide variety of incomes. My street in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago, for example, contains a handful of single-family homes, whose value at this point probably reaches into the six figures; expensive newer condo buildings; older multifamily buildings, some of which have large, luxuriously updated units, and others whose apartments are somewhat smaller, or have less up-to-date finishes; and a few single room occupancy buildings, with minimal accommodations. As a result, there is market-rate housing for everyone from upper-middle-class professionals to working-class immigrant families to low-income elderly adults. Of course, that sort of diversity is typical of a pre-zoning “illegal neighborhood”: A vanishingly small proportion of American neighborhoods allow that sort of mix to be created today, which is a large part of the problem. Making these kinds of neighborhoods more common might make America’s housing policy a little more cohesive and less contradictory.
In the explanation of why we have two contradictory positions, I think two key pieces are missed. One is the political dimension of these two goals for housing. Both have broad appeal – people want to be able to move to better neighborhoods even as they want higher housing values – and politicians continually push homeownership for the average American. This has been a common theme going back to the 1920s (see an example from 1931). To put it bluntly, it helps secure votes. Second is the role of residents themselves who continue to want both outcomes. Policy, particularly at the federal level, is important here and a number of scholars have noted how decisions about mortgages and urban renewal privileged homeownership in the suburbs. Still, numerous residents practice NIMBY behavior, resisting change once they have their secure position within the home and neighborhood they want. Given the amount of money required to buy a home – it is the biggest single investment many people will make – this is understandable but it certainly doesn’t help others.
Both of the proposed solutions above are difficult to pull off. Using public money for public housing or affordable housing has been opposed since the early 1900s. Having mixed use and mixed income neighborhoods may be popular with some (New Urbanists, young people moving to the city) but it doesn’t get the same level of support from the broader public. To have housing for all or many would mean giving up some on the idea of housing as investment but those with more means – from the middle class on up – will not like this idea one bit.