Why I’m skeptical housing will become a national political issue

Even as affordable housing is a concern in a number of places in the United States, there is little national political discussion of the issue:

Franzini is joined in this quest by a curious cast of fellow travelers who are committed to raising the political profile of the American housing dilemma. As home prices creep up everywhere from established tech hubs to traditionally inexpensive cities like Boise and Nashville—and as homelessness reaches epidemic proportions on the West Coast—a number of organizations from a diverse array of sectors have recently formed to push for housing policy changes at the highest levels of government. They’re frustrated by the lack of engagement on housing that national political leaders are offering. And they’re finding that, at least for the moment, the first order of business is just educating people about the seriousness of the issue.

Here are four reasons why I believe it will be very tough to have a national political discussion, let alone pressure for the federal government to act, regarding housing:

  1. Housing is local. Americans would like local governments to handle the issue as they prefer, particularly those with more resources, to live in places that can limit others of lesser status from moving in. Residents and smaller governments argue that they should not be forced to build housing that current residents do not desire or give money to less deserving people for housing.
  2. Americans historically do not have much appetite for significant federal involvement in public or subsidized housing even as they like socialized mortgages for single-family homes.
  3. The housing industry has significant influence, from the National Association of Home Builders to the National Association of Realtors, due to the importance of the housing industry for the American economy and particular American ideals about what kinds of housing are preferred. Affordable or cheaper housing might generate fewer profits.
  4. Opponents to federal action will argue that Americans can have cheaper housing if they (a) are willing to move to metro areas that have cheaper housing (and plenty of them exist) and (b) truly take on the local power brokers that usually do not want the working and middle classes to access their wealthier neighborhoods. These arguments are plausible enough (though with issues) for a number of participants in the discussion.

A number of these reasons involve ideas about what should be part of the American Dream as well as perceptions about who can access it (so it involves race and social class).

Polarization: California housing bill does not make it out of committee

It is unclear how California intends to move forward in providing cheaper housing to residents after a YIMBY (“yes in my backyard”) housing bill did not make it out of committee earlier this week:

On Tuesday night, legislators killed SB 827, which would have allowed the construction of apartment buildings up to five stories tall near every high-frequency mass transit stop in the state.

SB 827 sparked a spirited debate about how the state should address its housing crisis. Its lead sponsor, State Senator Scott Wiener, argued that wresting zoning decisions away from local municipalities and forcing communities to build more densely near transit was the best way to both ease housing affordability in cities like San Francisco and help the state hit its ambitious environmental goals. Supporters of the bill—dubbed YIMBYs, for “Yes In My Backyard”—took on residents from wealthier, single-family home neighborhoods, who deployed the traditional NIMBY argument that the bill imperiled neighborhood character and would lead to traffic and parking woes.

The NIMBY side had some surprising allies, among them the Sierra Club and advocates for “Public Housing in My Backyard,” or PHIMBYs, who argued that the law would enrich developers and exacerbate gentrification in low-income minority neighborhoods…

Wiener also acknowledged how ambitious the bill was, and said he was “heartened by the conversation it has started.” Indeed, the bill was much-discussed nationwide. Vox’s Matthew Yglesias called SB 827 “one of the most important ideas in American politics today,” and the Boston Globe’s Dante Ramos said the bill could be “the biggest environmental boon, the best job creator, and the greatest strike against inequality that anyone’s proposed in the United States in decades.”

There are plenty of polarizing issues in America today but few would divide people so deeply than the issue of housing. There are several reasons for this:

  1. It is closely connected to race in the United States. While legally discriminating based on race or ethnicity in housing has been illegal for 50 years, residential segregation by race and ethnicity is alive and well.
  2. It is closely connected to social class in the United States. Those with resources do not want to live near those without resources. This can disrupt groups that commonly stick together, such as Democrats who might generally be more in favor of affordable housing but not necessarily when it means providing more housing in wealthier areas.
  3. Some of these polarizing issues are more abstract for many people but housing is an everyday issue that affects who you interact with, school districts, what kids see as normal, communities, parks, safety, and property values. Those who have choices about where they can move typically want those places to stay “nice.”

If California cannot figure this out at a state level, are there other states that can step up and provide affordable housing?

(Of course, the state level may not be the best level at which to address this. However, if it is left to municipalities, the wealthier ones will simply opt out and leave the issue for other communities to address.)

Win political office with low turnout in municipal elections

Even large cities have problems with voter turnout in municipal elections:

Voter turnout in local elections has always been low, and it’s gotten worse in recent decades, studies of voting behavior in municipal elections have shown. In most of the biggest U.S. cities, fewer than one-third of eligible voters turned out in the most recent municipal elections. And according to data culled by researchers at Portland State University, those who do cast ballots in major cities tend to be significantly older than the general population, a factor that might weigh against women and candidates from diverse backgrounds.

My impression of elected officials in suburbs is that a good number get into local elections because they care deeply about an issue. With low turnout, relatively small communities, and a lack of formal political parties (many smaller municipal elections are supposedly non-partisan), it does not take a lot of resources to run for local office.

Of course, some of these variables are different at the big city level: often dominated by partisan politics, a larger need for significant sums of money, and a need to woo tens of thousands of voters. Still, it is notable that the leaders of some of the most important cities in the world can be voted in with votes from a relatively small number of citizens. These local leaders may not be able to easily move into national positions yet their decisions affect residents on a daily basis in a way that more abstract and further removed national politics cannot.

The Chicago Tribune in 1968 and conservatives today: sociologists excuse rioters

In an overview of Martin Luther King Jr.’s final months, the Chicago Tribune quotes its own take on urban riots:

King’s opponents saw his proposed march as an invitation to rioting. In the 1960s, one inner city after another had exploded in deadly and destructive riots. King explained the violence with a metaphor: “A riot is the language of the unheard.”

The Tribune rejected that argument in a Jan. 21, 1968, editorial: “Every time there is a riot in the streets you can count on a flock of sociologists rushing forward to excuse the rioters.” King’s “nonviolence,” the Tribune added, “is designed to goad others into violence.”

Simultaneously, King was under attack by a younger generation of black militants who rejected his pacifist philosophy as weak. Their conclusion was echoed by Adam Clayton Powell Jr. “I don’t call for violence or riots, but the day of Martin Luther King has come to an end,” said Powell, a longtime U.S. congressman from New York.

Lest the Tribune let this idea of sociologists excusing riots be swept into the dustbin of history, this idea exists in recent years as well. In 2013, the conservative Canadian Prime Minister said we should not “commit sociology” when addressing terrorism. Conservative columnist George Will used a similar phrase in 2012 when discussing the shooting in Aurora, Colorado. Of course, explaining social phenomena is not the same as excusing or condoning it.

Now that I have seen this sort of explanation multiple times, it is clearly less about sociology and how social science works and more about political ideology. Sociologists, by a wide majority, are liberals. Those who tend to disparage sociology in public phrases like these are conservatives. The implication is that sociologists and liberals are willing to allow violence and disorder if it serves a particular political end. And, this may have just enough of a grain of truth to be a repeatable claim.

Suburban voters could give Democrats House majority

The hopes the Democrats have to recapture the House depend on suburban voters:

In the last two weeks, Democrats scored an upset in southwest Pennsylvania and dominated the voting in the Republican suburbs outside Chicago. President Donald Trump, who never won over suburbia, continues to get poor marks from the educated, upper income Americans who often call it home. After Democratic victories in state legislative contests in Virginia and special elections across the country — even a stunning Senate election in Republican-dominated Alabama — Republicans have plenty of reason to worry that commuter country may be their undoing in the fight for control of the House in November’s midterm elections…

Democrats need to pick up 23 seats to take the majority — a task made particularly challenging by the way House districts currently are drawn to favor Republicans. Still, any House majority is built on suburban success.

Republicans control most rural and small-town districts, where Trump finds his strongest political support. Democrats dominate districts anchored in big cities, where Trump opposition is fiercest. The party in charge will be the one that wins the battle in between, where the electorate often is the sort of ideological and demographic mix that defines a two-party battleground…

Democrats’ target list starts with nearly two dozen Republican-held seats where Hillary Clinton bested Trump in 2016. The list is heavy on seats in California and the northeast — suburbs outside Philadelphia and New York — corners of Democratic-leaning states where Trump didn’t win over wealthier, moderate Republicans. Now the GOP fears that those weaknesses are spreading further from big-city centers and also into suburban districts around mid-size and smaller metropolitan areas.

While the narrative in this election cycle will certainly involve Trump, there is more going on with suburban voters. The voters in many suburbs can be persuaded by a different party every election cycle. This is partly due to the changing nature of suburbs where there are now more diverse populations and changing economic conditions. The suburbs have many people who want to protect their own interests as well as ensure a good future for their children. Still, suburbanites closer to cities will tend to vote Democrat and those further out will tend to vote Republican.

Comparing “Trickle-Down America” (urban) and “Stagnant America” (rural)

Recent comments from Hillary Clinton praising American “places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward” leads to this comparison between “trickle-down” and “stagnant” Americas:

Over the past 40 or so years, the U.S. has been fragmenting into two parallel societies, which I’ll call Trickle-Down America and Stagnant America. Each one looks upon the other with suspicion and hostility. Trickle-Down America is the America of our biggest metropolitan areas, and it is defined by comparatively high levels of density, diversity, and economic inequality. Importantly, the richest people in Trickle-Down America are typically white, while the service-sector workers who enable them to work longer hours are disproportionately brown and black. Stagnant America can be found in rural regions, small cities and towns, and outer suburbs across the country. This America is largely white and relatively equal, though it too is scarred by poverty, particularly among Hispanics and blacks. America’s most and least educated workers are concentrated in Trickle-Down America, while Stagnant America is home to most of America’s working- and middle-class white voters.

Is Trickle-Down America morally superior to Stagnant America? A good starting point is to reflect on the sources of Trickle-Down America’s wealth. In New York City, my hometown, the local economy has long been dominated by the financial-services sector, which has grown mightily in recent decades. Has the financialization of the U.S. economy been an unadulterated good for the country as a whole? There are many thoughtful people who’d argue otherwise. Indeed, some argue that rents flowing to the financial sector have badly distorted the U.S. economy, and have contributed to the devastation of tradeable sector employment in Stagnant America. Corporations headquartered in America’s cosmopolitan cities have profited immensely from the emergence of a globalized division of labor. Yet many of these same multinationals have pioneered tax-avoidance strategies that have made it harder for the federal government to compensate those who’ve lost out with globalization, all while deploying their considerable influence to get the U.S. government to pressure other countries to adopt intellectual-property protections that serve their interests. And then there is the federal government itself, and its vast, growing army of private administrative proxies—contractors, non-profits dependent on public subsidies, and the like—that has helped make Washington, D.C., and its environs one of the country’s most affluent and educated regions. It’s hard to disentangle exactly how much of Trickle-Down America’s success relative to Stagnant America is a product of straightforward rent-seeking. I certainly doubt that it accounts for all of it, or even most. But surely it accounts for some, and that should give Trickle-Down America’s champions pause.

One important thing to keep in mind is that Trickle-Down America is, overall, characterized by more stringent land-use limits than Stagnant America. These limits have raised housing costs in affluent coastal regions, which has redounded to the benefit of incumbent homeowners. Yet high housing costs have deterred inward domestic migration while driving out large numbers of working-and middle-class residents…

For now, though, Trickle-Down America’s affluent professionals find themselves in a sweet spot, which surely accounts for some of Clinton’s triumphalism. The food is better. Beautiful old houses are being renovated everywhere you turn. An abundance of low-wage immigrant labor adds diversity and dynamism to cosmopolitan cities, yet the noncitizen working class isn’t in a position to press for a more egalitarian social order—one that could prove discomfiting for local elites. Best of all, opposition to Trump is helping to obscure simmering discontent over Trickle-Down America’s business model.

This is a different way of categorizing the stark urban and rural political divides of recent years. Yet, it also highlights a key issue simmering within the leading cities and metropolitan areas that are so important to American life: who really benefits in the major cities? Are the high levels of innovation, growth, development, and cultural excitement accessible to all urban residents or do the spoils disproportionately go to the top?Inequality cuts across multiple strata of society. Certainly there are stark differences within cities as well as between urban and rural areas. I’ll add a third area that complicates the story above (though these are likely lumped in with the Trickle-Down America segment): the inequality present in American suburbs. Even as the majority of Americans live in suburbs and seem to have achieved the American Dream of suburban life, life outcomes can differ dramatically across suburban communities.

What makes this suburban inequality more interesting for the realm of politics is how is affects voting: areas generally closer to the big city or with demographics more like the big city vote Democrat and wealthier communities and areas further out in regions vote Republicans. Will these same sort of voting cleavages arise in rural areas in cities as various inequalities receive more attention?

Countering gerrymandering in Pennsylvania with numerical models

Wired highlights a few academics who argued against gerrymandered political districts in Pennsylvania with models showing the low probability that the map is nonpartisan:

Then, Pegden analyzed the partisan slant of each new map compared to the original, using a well-known metric called the median versus mean test. In this case, Pegden compared the Republican vote share in each of Pennsylvania’s 18 districts. For each map, he calculated the difference between the median vote share across all the districts and the mean vote share across all of the districts. The bigger the difference, the more of an advantage the Republicans had in that map.

After conducting his trillion simulations, Pegden found that the 2011 Pennsylvania map exhibited more partisan bias than 99.999999 percent of maps he tested. In other words, making even the tiniest changes in almost any direction to the existing map chiseled away at the Republican advantage…

Like Pegden, Chen uses computer programs to simulate alternative maps. But instead of starting with the original map and making small changes, Chen’s program develops entirely new maps, based on a series of geographic constraints. The maps should be compact in shape, preserve county and municipal boundaries, and have equal populations. They’re drawn, in other words, in some magical world where partisanship doesn’t exist. The only goal, says Chen, is that these maps be “geographically normal.”

Chen generated 500 such maps for Pennsylvania, and analyzed each of them based on how many Republican seats they would yield. He also looked at how many counties and municipalities were split across districts, a practice the Pennsylvania constitution forbids “unless absolutely necessary.” Keeping counties and municipalities together, the thinking goes, keeps communities together. He compared those figures to the disputed map, and presented the results to the court…

Most of the maps gave Republicans nine seats. Just two percent gave them 10 seats. None even came close to the disputed map, which gives Republicans a whopping 13 seats.

It takes a lot of work to develop these models and they are based on particular assumptions as well as methods for calculations. Still, could a political side present a reasonable statistical counterargument?

Given both the innumeracy of the American population and some resistance to experts, I wonder how the public would view such models. On one hand, gerrymandering can be countered by simple arguments: the shapes drawn on the map are pretty strange and can’t truly represent any meaningful community. On the other hand, the models reinforce how unlikely these particular maps are. It isn’t just that the shapes are unusual; they are highly unlikely given various inputs that go into creating meaningful districts. Perhaps any of these argument are meaningless if your side is winning through the maps.