The Democratic debate included several minutes of conversation about housing!

The Democratic debate on Wednesday night included several minutes on the issue of housing. From the transcript:

WELKER: Mr. Steyer, millions of working Americans are finding that housing has become unaffordable, especially in metropolitan areas. It is particularly acute in your home state of California, in places like Los Angeles and San Francisco. Why are you the best person to fix this problem?

STEYER: When you look at inequality in the United States of America, you have to start with housing. Where you put your head at night determines so many things about your life. It determines where your kids go to school. It determines the air you breathe, where you shop, how long it takes you to get to work.

What we’ve seen in California is, as a result of policy, we have millions too few housing units. And that affects everybody in California. It starts with a homeless crisis that goes all through the state, but it also includes skyrocketing rents which affect every single working person in the state of California.

I understand exactly what needs to be done here, which is we need to change policy and we need to apply resources here to make sure that we build literally millions of new units.

But the other thing that’s going to be true about building these units is, we’re going to have to build them in a way that’s sustainable, that, in fact, how we build units, where people live has a dramatic impact on climate and on sustainability.

So we are going to have to direct dollars, we’re going to have to change policy and make sure that the localities and municipalities who have worked very hard to make sure that there are no new housing units built in their towns, that they have to change that and we’re going to have force it, and then we’re going to have to direct federal dollars to make sure that those units are affordable so that working people can live in places and not be spending 50 percent of their income on rent.

WELKER: Thank you, Mr. Steyer. Thank you, Mr. Steyer. Senator Warren, I see your hand raised.

WARREN: Yes. Think of it this way. Our housing problem in America is a problem on the supply side, and that means that the federal government stopped building new housing a long time ago, affordable housing.

Also, private developers, they’ve gone up to McMansions. They’re not building the little two bedroom, one bath house that I grew up in, garage converted to be a bedroom for my three brothers.

So I’ve got a plan for 3.2 million new housing units in America. Those are housing units for working families, for the working poor, for the poor poor, for seniors who want to age in place, for people with disabilities, for people who are coming back from being incarcerated. It’s about tenants’ rights.

But there’s one more piece. Housing is how we build wealth in America. The federal government has subsidized the purchase of housing for decades for white people and has said for black people you’re cut out of the deal. That was known as red-lining.

When I built a housing plan, it’s not only a housing plan about building new units. It’s a housing plan about addressing what is wrong about government-sponsored discrimination, how we need to address it, and we need to say we’re going to reverse it.

WELKER: Thank you, Senator. Thank you, Senator. Senator Booker?

(APPLAUSE)

BOOKER: I’m so grateful, again, as a mayor who was a mayor during a recession, who was a mayor during a housing crisis, who started my career as a tenants’ rights lawyer, these are all good points, but we’re not talking about something that is going on all over America, which is gentrification and low-income families being moved further and further out, often compounding racial segregation.

And so all these things we need to put more federal dollars in it, but we’ve got to start empowering people. We use our tax code to move wealth up, the mortgage interest deduction. My plan is very simple. If you’re a renter who pays more than a third of your income in rent, then you will get a refundable tax credit between the amount you’re paying and the area median rent. That empowers people in the same way we empower homeowners.

And what that does is it actually slashes poverty, 10 million people out. And by the way, for those people who are facing eviction, it is about time that the only people when they show up in rentals court that have a lawyer is not the landlord, it is also low-income families struggling to stay in their homes.

WELKER: Thank you, Senator.

Quick summary of the conversation:

1. It was short – just a few minutes and only three candidates talked.

2. Two candidates, Steyer and Warren, talked about the need for more and cheaper housing units. They did not get into many details about how to fund those units or where they would be located.

3. Two candidates talked in more detail about the inequality in housing with Warren talking about discrimination in housing and Booker discussing tax credits for renters.

Quick thoughts:

1. It is good to have the issue addressed directly. However, the amount of time spent on it, the number of candidates who responded, the lack of follow-up questions, and the quick cut to a commercial suggests it is not an important issue.

2. This is a complex issue with many local variables. Hence, it is not easy to fit housing discussions into sound-bite driven debates. However, the candidates barely got to say anything about actual policy or dealing with thorny problems such as convincing wealthier communities to include cheaper housing. Is it better in the long run to over-simplify a complex issue or not address it at all?

3. Given all the ways that housing intersects with issues that Democrats care about, why couldn’t a candidate start their policy positions with housing? This is probably because it is unpopular to address it from a top-down level but who said politics was easy? Truly addressing inequality will require addressing all the ways it intersects with places and communities.

Reminder: “Americans have no comparable safety net for housing”

Americans generally have limited options in obtaining with housing from the government:

With food and health care, we recognize that some number of people will have trouble paying for the basics, so our government provides a minimum standard of access through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (for food) and Medicaid (for health care). These programs are designed to expand and contract based on need (setting aside current politics).

Americans have no comparable safety net for housing. While the federal Section 8 program does provide rental assistance to low-income families, inadequate public funding means that fewer than half of eligible households actually receive a voucher. The inadequacy of our response has led to a variety of injustices: growing homelessness, overcrowding in small or substandard apartments, and housing costs that squeeze families’ ability to pay for child care, transportation, and other essential needs. Policymakers and housing advocates, especially some of the great ones we have in Massachusetts, have worked hard to cobble together different low-income housing programs and subsidies that help many of these needy families. But it’s a patchwork approach that leaves far too many behind.

And then those who compete in the “free market” may also have few options:

There’s also a second crisis, which affects middle-income families headed by people such as teachers, salespeople, nurses, and retirees living on fixed incomes. This crisis is more directly tied to housing cost. If our private market was functioning properly and producing diverse, family-friendly housing, these families would be able to afford decent housing options without needing public subsidy. But they increasingly struggle to do so. This problem is especially pronounced in Boston’s suburbs, many of which have a long history of banning the construction of townhomes, duplexes, triple-deckers, and modest apartment buildings that would serve these middle-class families. Thanks to these extreme prohibitions, many of our region’s suburbs have instead seen a trend towards larger, and pricier, McMansion-style homes.

Addressing housing may the toughest issue to address in the United States. Still, ousing is a basic human need and not having adequate or consistent housing has detrimental effects on residents. Providing food, health care, and other necessities can help but may not mean as much without a good home.

As an earlier post noted, Americans have supported/subsidized mortgages for single-family homes but this has not benefited all. The system is not really a free market; it helps some people make money, some residents to benefit from long-term property value increases (and then pass on this wealth to future generations), and others to struggle to get into the system. The federal government – and the American people in general – have had little appetite for big government housing programs. Not even a burst housing bubble in the late 2000s truly altered the rules of the American housing game.

Given the number of people affected, perhaps this will eventually grow into an issue that cannot be ignored. But, given the lack of attention this gets during this election season, I am not hopeful with will be adequately addressed soon.

Move to the big city to live in a capsule

Difficulty in finding cheaper housing means Americans moving to a big city might consider living in a capsule:

Each room contains up to six capsules, which Wilson describes as “cozy.” They contain a single bed, a bar for hanging clothes, a few compartments for storing shoes and other items and an air vent.

By most standards, the accommodation is still not cheap — $750 per month plus taxes. That works out at around $800, which is slightly more than the 26-year-old was paying in Bethlehem, around 70 miles outside Philadelphia…

Cheaper options exist, but UP(st)ART offers a good, central location and modern buildings equipped with a gym, dance classes, recording studio, art workshop and free cleaning and laundry services…

Still, the capsule-living concept is also catching on in other expensive US cities including New York.

The key redeeming feature to these capsule in Los Angeles appears to be that it is located within an artistic community. Capsule inhabitants may not get much in terms of space but they are plugged into a set of like-minded people and have attached facilities they can use.

On the other side, imagine capsules with no community. Would people be willing to rent/occupy those and at what price point? Would it be worth it to have a roughly 31 square foot area for $800 a month in Manhattan? Would the price drop significantly if the capsule was in one of the other boroughs of New York? Or, imagine capsule for people who are not so free to simply pick up and move. Where would you go if you had a spouse? A child?

Both of these could be true:

  1. There is a needed for cheaper housing in many American cities so that young people can get their feet on the ground and start down a path toward adult success.
  2. There might be relatively cheap housing available in many locations, either in smaller cities or neighborhoods beyond the most attractive ones in cities. But, a good number of young adults want to go to the most exciting places such as New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, neighborhoods with lots of millennials such as in Chicago, etc..

What would happen if the Supreme Court addresses inclusionary zoning?

A legal case involving zoning in Marin County, California may make it to the Supreme Court.

Back in May, authorities in Marin entered into a new voluntary compliance agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to build new low-income housing outside areas where black or brown residents make up the majority. This is now the county’s second big push since 2010 to satisfy the government’s demand that it work on desegregating its affordable housing.

Fair housing is a challenge for Marin, an enclave of million-dollar bungalows across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. According to a nonprofit project called Race Counts, it has the highest racial disparities of any county in California. That’s in part because Marin County doesn’t want to build any housing. Homeowners here are at the forefront of NIMBY efforts to stop plans for new construction, whether they’re local, regional, or statewide.

The county’s iron grip on its land is the backdrop for a case that may soon appear before the U.S. Supreme Court. Back in 2000, two Marin County property owners, Dartmond and Esther Cherk, looked to split their undeveloped land into two single-family-zoned lots. As developers, they were liable to preserve some part of the property for affordable housing or pay into a low-income housing production fund. The fee was nearly $40,000; the Cherks sued.

The Marin County case may test the constitutionality of inclusionary zoning, a tool that local jurisdictions rely on to expand the supply of affordable housing, especially in tight housing markets. The court has expressed an interest in the case, which the justices may wind up using as a wedge to reshape property rights. It’s possible the inclusionary zoning ordinances—and local regulations more broadly construed—will not stand under the court’s scrutiny.

I’m on the record suggesting the Supreme Court would approve inclusionary zoning. While this piece suggests conservatives on the court might be spoiling to affirm property rights, the courts more broadly have helped develop plans to promote more affordable housing (think the Gautreaux case in Chicago or the Mount Laurel decision in New Jersey). Earlier decisions did not eviscerate property rights but they did suggest that the responsibility for housing was wider than a single community and its zoning. Additionally, having developers pay a fee into an affordable housing fund or provide some units of affordable housing as part of the larger project is common practice across American communities.

Beyond just the actions of Marin County and its own housing supply and population composition, the bigger issue is this: if a community or township or county restricts development and/or housing, it puts a bigger burden on other municipalities in the same metropolitan region to provide housing. And if many municipalities refuse certain kinds of development, more affordable housing ends up in a limited number of places that are (1) not necessarily located near jobs and (2) relatively lower-class. Housing is an issue best tackled by a whole metropolitan area (as are other issues including mass transit and transportation). More dispersed outcomes would likely lead to better outcomes across the region with the biggest loss being the communities that cannot easily remain as exclusive as they would like.

 

Zoning for single-family homes contributes to California’s housing issues

If a lot of individual communities zone largely for single-family homes, it can add up to larger housing problems:

At its heart, California’s housing problem is one of scarcity: According to one analysis, the state has 3.5 million fewer homes than it needs to house all the people who live there. That gap was created over decades — largely as a result of the zoning policies of individual communities, under pressure from local residents. Randy Shaw, a longtime Bay Area housing advocate and author of the book Generation Priced Out, says the best way to describe the dynamics at play is to look at the city of Atherton. Thirty minutes from San Jose, Atherton is the most expensive city in the country: The median price of a home there is $8.1 million.

“You can’t build an apartment building in Atherton,” Shaw says. City code prohibits anything other than a single-unit building with a footprint that cannot exceed 18 percent of the land. In other words, everything but a single, detached home with a yard is verboten. “You have all of these cities in California where you can’t build anything but a luxury home,” Shaw says. “When you have zoning restrictions that prevent you from building the housing you need, you’re pretty much guaranteed to get in the situation we have.”

It’s a problem lawmakers across the state are grappling with, including in San Jose, where 94 percent of the city is zoned for single-family homes. “You got lots of family housing, and you’re not going to bulldoze it to go build apartments,” Liccardo said at a meeting of the state’s mayors in July. “At least, not if you don’t want [homeowners] to burn down City Hall.”…

At the start of the legislative session this past January, the housing committee introduced a slate of bills focused on streamlining approvals for new construction, protecting renters, funding affordable housing, and, most controversially, reforming zoning laws. Wiener’s top priority was SB50, an ambitious proposal that would prohibit cities from having zoning laws like Atherton’s. Residential neighborhoods historically reserved for single-family homes would be opened up to multi-unit housing like triplexes and fourplexes. And even higher-density construction would be allowed around transit corridors and “job-rich” enclaves.

With suburban preferences for single-family homes, exclusion, and local control, providing cheaper housing at a state level is going to be a tough sell. As I have asked before, what incentive do wealthier homeowners have to change the rules that let them live with people like them? But, if California can find some path through this all that actually makes an impact – and it will likely take quite a while before significant change could be noted – then it could provide a helpful template for other American locations that suffer from similar problems.

Three thoughts on the finding that 7.5% of housing in Naperville is affordable

Naperville is a large – over 140,000 residents – and wealth – a median household income of just over $114,000 – suburb. It also does not have much affordable housing:

A state agency recently faulted Naperville as the only Illinois community of 50,000 or more lacking affordable housing, which, according to the federal government, means housing costs make up no more than 30% of a household’s income. In a report last year, the Illinois Housing Development Authority found just 7.5% of Naperville homes are considered affordable based on the regional median income, among the lowest percentages in the state.

Some elected officials fear Naperville’s high housing costs could drive out seniors and push away recent college graduates and middle-class professionals. As those city leaders consider a slew of new developments, they and housing advocates are debating how and whether to include affordable units that could bring in new residents and help people such as Melekhova stay…

Efforts to include affordable housing in Naperville developments have been met with some resistance. Residents have questioned the effects affordable units would have on their neighborhood and whether the look of buildings with affordable units would fit the character of the area.

One question submitted on a note card during a panel on affordable housing in May was more pointed: “What steps can landlords utilize to minimize the potential negative impacts of the associated tenants utilizing affordable housing?”

Based on my research on suburbs and Naperville, three quick thoughts:

  1. Naperville enjoys being a wealthy suburb. It has a really low poverty rate for a city its size. It has lots of white-collar jobs. While this tends to be put in terms of having a high quality of life, nice amenities, and good schools, there is clearly wealth.
  2. There is not a lot of affordable housing because that is not the kind of housing Naperville prioritized for the last fifty years. As the suburb really started to grow in land area and population in the 1960s, there were public discussions about building apartments. This is not what won out in the long run and the community approved subdivision after subdivision of nicer single-family homes. (See my 2013 article that details some of this.)
  3. More recent discussions and the comments highlighted in the article are common ones in suburban debates over affordable housing. When suburbs discuss affordable housing, they often are thinking of people that would desire in the community such as younger adults and retirees. They are not explicitly seeking out poorer residents. Such concerns can be put in different terms – privileging “quality” development or protecting the “character” of neighborhoods – but they often do not address housing for the many Americans working in lower-paying jobs. And there may be some support for affordable housing units but it is harder to find the suburban homeowners who want to live near those units.

All that said, truly addressing the issue of affordable housing requires more effort than adding a few units spread throughout the large suburb. A larger discussion about what kind of housing the community desires and what kind of residents it wants would have to take place before the number of affordable housing units would truly jump.

Affordable housing, homelessness, and a political void

Homelessness in Los Angeles and other high cost cities may be just the tip of the iceberg of a larger housing issue in the United States that gets little political attention:

“To say it’s been a real wake-up call would be putting it mildly,” says Raphael Sonenshein, the director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University’s L.A. campus. “It continues to be the No. 1 issue voters keep pointing to. This is going to be the issue of our time for the next few years out here. I think it’s going to dominate the rest of the mayor’s administration.”

Homelessness is by no means a problem unique to Los Angeles, of course. It’s a national crisis of varying degrees in cities from San Francisco to Boston, and one that officials at all levels of government seem hard-pressed to know how to address. Ahead of the first presidential-primary debates, the issue has barely registered, if at all, on the 2020 campaign trail, even as the bursting field of Democratic contenders issues policy proposals to address a wide range of other social and economic problems. But the candidate’s may be forced to confront the issue before long if the crisis continues to spread across the country…

California’s problem may be especially acute, but the lack of affordable housing, like homelessness, is a widespread problem in a national economy where income inequality has grown steadily for years. Yet of the leading presidential candidates, perhaps only Elizabeth Warren has outlined a detailed national plan to address the lack of affordable housing. She has proposed a program that would encourage states and localities to drop restrictive zoning laws that limit multiple dwellings and drive up housing costs in exchange for grants that could finance parks, roads, and schools. Her plan is comparable to a state proposal floated by California’s new Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom.

One major problem is widespread public opposition to greater density; a city like Los Angeles epitomizes urban sprawl, but it also enshrines the ideal of a backyard swimming pool and garden. The California state Senate recently shelved a bill that would have allowed the overriding of local zoning laws to permit construction of mid-rise apartment buildings near transit hubs and employment centers, even in neighborhoods currently limited to single-family homes. The bill fell victim to intense opposition from local neighborhood groups and some progressives, who feared it would benefit developers but not create more affordable housing. A study published in February by researchers at UCLA found that Newsom’s goal of 3.5 million new homes by 2025 is unrealistic because no more than 2.8 million could be built under current zoning laws.

I have argued before there is little appetite for a national discussion about affordable housing. To some degree, housing issues are related to numerous issues at stake in the 2020 elections including economic concerns, matters of justice and inequality, and providing opportunities to all Americans. However, it is difficult to make the argument that housing is behind all of these other concerns. I think this case could be made: where people live has many consequences in life.

I’m guessing housing issues will continue to mainly be local issues for a long time. It is unclear whether even state-level solutions can make sizable dents in these issues or how many states would have an appetite for sweeping policies that would affect all municipalities.

If there is limited movement on or even discussion of affordable housing across the United States, could this mean any progress in other areas will be limited?