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).

A lottery for limited affordable housing housing, part one

Affordable housing is in short supply in numerous American cities and an example of a lottery for 95 affordable housing units in San Francisco illustrates the issue:

Subsidized housing is often rationed this way, by lottery. Many apply, few win, most are disappointed. The process is meant to be more fair than first-come, first-served. But lotteries make literal a deeper unfairness. For homeowners, the mortgage interest deduction is available to anyone who qualifies. For poor renters, there is never enough housing assistance to go around…

Amid all the wealth in this neighborhood, a one-bedroom at Natalie Gubb Commons would rent for around $1,000 to $1,200 a month, a three-bedroom up to $1,700. Apartments next door were three times as much.

That discount is possible through a mix of resources. Mercy Housing, the project’s nonprofit developer, effectively got the land free as part of a city requirement that the neighborhood’s redevelopment include affordable housing. The market-rate developer next door was subsidizing the project, along with city funds. Revenue from the state’s cap-and-trade emissions program helped. And Mercy used the backbone of nearly every affordable housing project in America, federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credits

But the tax bill’s implications for poor renters will be more profound. The odds are likely to grow worse than these: Last year, 53 households applied per each new affordable unit at The Meridian in Los Angeles; 84 for every home at Parcel 25 in Boston; 391 for each unit at Stargell Commons in Alameda, Calif.; 979 for every home at Our Lady of Lourdes Apartments in New York.

This is a reminder of both the acute need for affordable housing in more expensive cities as well as the limited approach to the issue from the federal government. Places that are often held out as the promise of America for their cultural diversity as well as their economic potential – such as San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, etc. – are often difficult places for those who are middle-class and below.

Additionally, the federal government has never wholeheartedly committed to helping provide housing for all. As the article notes, American housing policy subsidizes single-family homes. This has been an intentional policy choice for decades, beginning before the post World War II suburban boom and then continuing through mass suburbanization as well as into the twenty-first century. It would be difficult to have a direct national political conversation about this since it tends to happen through elected representatives who rarely discuss housing and through various government agencies. Also, it is hard to know whether all those people who have moved to single-family homes in the suburbs have done so because that is what they truly wanted among numerous equal options or they were pushed to some degree by the political and cultural leanings in those directions.

There is another intriguing aspect of this article: both how the lottery is discussed as well as how the lottery is conducted. More on this in a post in a few days.

The first federal government document to mention “racism”

The Kerner Commission Report of 1968 is notable for a number of reasons. But, I had never heard this claim before:

Did the report change anything?

“I think so,” he said. “Using the word racism was important. That was the first time it had ever been in any government document. Black kids internalize this discrimination they’re feeling: ‘Maybe there’s something wrong with me.’ It was really essential to say you’re not crazy.”

I do not know whether this claim is entirely true. On the face of it, this sounds like the federal government was resistant to using a word that could easily describe decades and centuries of experiences.

But, on the hand, perhaps racism was not a commonly used term. A quick search of Google Ngram suggests the use of racism picked up steam in the 1960s:

GoogleNgramRacism

Still, even if it was relatively ahead of its time, every time I see the Kerner Commission Report I’m reminded of the applicability of its conclusions for the last fifty years.

Don’t forget that American residents can collectively help decide what houses mean for Americans

Kate Wagner of McMansion Hell ends a commentary piece several months ago by arguing Americans need to redefine the meaning of the home:

We need a cultural re-examination of what a home should do for us. Are we building our homes to cater to the communal needs of a family or to accommodate items or signifiers that will impress others? Will a home inspire its inhabitants to spend time with one another or isolate themselves in myriad rooms? Are we building a home to live in, or are we preoccupied with the idea of selling it even before the first brick is laid? Do we want to remodel or redecorate, or do we feel we have to because we’re constantly flooded with content that makes us feel inadequate if we don’t?

It’s time we as space-inhabiters break this unsustainable, unnecessary, and wasteful cultural cycle of consumption and reclaim our homes as our proverbial rocks, the spaces that make us feel safe and content. Who gave industry-funded media like HGTV or Houzz the right to dictate the proper and best ways to inhabit our spaces, to ridicule or diagnose as wrong those of us who lack the desire or the means to constantly consume in precisely way they want us to? A home isn’t an investment vehicle where cash goes in and more cash comes out, or the “After” segment of a television show. A home is, above all, an intimate, personal place; a haven where our intricate lives as human beings unfold. Grey paint be damned.

This names several actors who are defining what Americans want in homes. This includes:

-Media like HGTV.

-The housing industry.

Both certainly have power and influence. The housing industry through the National Association of Home Builders has a powerful lobbying presence. Just see their actions in the latest debates over the mortgage interest deduction. For decades, various media outlets have pushed the image of single-family homes filled with consumer goods; they needs advertisers after all. HGTV has a limited audience but their viewers may be the same upper-middle class Americans that feel like they are not doing well and are very vocal about this.

But these are not the only actors influencing what Americans think of homes. This list should also include:

-The government.

-American residents.

Histories of how the American suburbs developed in addition to overviews of federal housing policy (see this recent example) suggest that federal government in the last century or so is set up to help people obtain homes in the suburbs.

Often missing in these analyses is the role of American residents themselves. What kinds of homes do they truly want? More Marxist analyses suggest Americans have been duped or led into wanting large homes in a capitalist system. Thus, we should help Americans find homes that truly fit their needs rather than mindlessly giving in to what the housing industry and government want them to have. (Wagner’s paragraphs above sound very similar to Sarah Susanka arguments in The Not-So-Big House.) “Re-claim our homes” could involve fighting back against the capitalist system that insists our homes are true markers of who we are (and distracts us from the real issues at hand). In contrast, historian Jon Teaford suggests these sorts of homes are what Americans do truly want because they highly value freedom and individualism. Others like Joel Kotkin have made similar arguments: Americans keep moving to the suburbs because they like them, not because they are forced into them or are not smart enough to fight the system.

Regardless of where these ideas about homes came from (and it includes a mix of institutions as well as ideologies), American residents still have the ability to reject the typical narratives about single-family homes. They do often have options available to them. What kind of home they chose is a very consequential decision. And, perhaps even better, this does not have to be an individual effort or solely about personal empowerment: Americans could collectively vote for candidates and parties that would have a different image of housing. But, oddly enough, housing rarely comes up in national politics and local politics seems full of zoning and housing disputes but few large-scale efforts to provide alternatives. If Americans want housing options to change, they do not have to just turn off HGTV; at both the federal and local level, they should vote accordingly and/or insist that political candidates talk about these issues.

Ideologies and behaviors regarding housing do not just happen: they develop over time and involve a multitude of actors. To have a new vision of housing in America will likely take decades of sustained effort within multiple structures and institutions. These are not new issues; those opposed to McMansions today are related to those opposed to the mass suburbs of the 1950s and to the social reformers of the early decades of the 1900s who promoted public housing. The efforts can be top-down – changes need to be made at the highest levels – but could be more effective if they start at the bottom – with average voters – who demand change of businesses and governments.

Eight (unlikely and unpopular) policy options for addressing housing issues

After a recent conversation with colleagues prompted by reading together the sociological work Evicted as well as my own thinking about residential segregation, I wanted to put together a blog post summarizing possible policy solutions to housing issues. I am not optimistic but here are the possible options I see at multiple levels:

  1. Provide incentives for developers and builders. This is a common strategy across different government levels: builders and developers are given access to choice properties or are able to build higher-end housing if they build cheaper housing or provide monies that could be used for cheaper housing. A number of major cities, including Chicago, have such incentives. However, it does not seem to have made a major dent in the amount of affordable housing that is needed. I have heard that argument that governments have simply not offered big enough incentives – there is a tipping point where this could really push builders and developers to construct cheaper housing. I don’t think I buy this argument. Even though there is clearly a market right now for cheaper housing, why would builders and developers not try to build the priciest stuff they can to bring in more profit?
  2. Other market-driven solutions beyond incentives. I’m on the record here as skeptical that free markets can address issues of residential segregation and housing. Vouchers have their supporters since they theoretically would allow poorer residents to access areas of the housing market they otherwise could not. At the same time, introducing vouchers leads to other issues such as inflated prices/rents and negative reactions to those with the vouchers.
  3. Local government action. Municipal officials have a good amount of control over what can be built within their boundaries. However, they are constrained by (1) local residents who want to protect their community (examples of NIMBY in action here and here) and (2) limited budgets and revenues so they are typically trying to maximize property and sales taxes while minimizing use of social services. The biggest tool municipalities have are local zoning guidelines that often constrict what can be built (see recent suburban non-housing examples here and here). One way that wealthier areas exclude those who are not so wealthy is to not allow multi-family housing or set guidelines requiring larger lot sizes.
  4. Metropolitan action. Housing is really an issue that spans municipalities as the majority of people live in one place and commute to another for work (plus drive elsewhere for other amenities). Yet, metropolitan governance does not exist on a large-scale in the United States. Outside of a few regions, this is not a viable option: people in different communities do not have ways to collaborate nor would they necessarily want to. This is particularly true of wealthier communities. Residents would argue that this is the purpose of local government: local residents should get to make decisions about their own communities rather than handing off money and/or control to an outside body that wishes to damage their quality of life. See examples of how this can play out regarding affordable housing in one region and another involving transportation across a whole region.
  5. State governments. States could decide to impose regulations and guidelines but then they would have to overrule municipalities. This is difficult. For example, Illinois in 2004 an affordable housing guideline where every community was supposed to have a certain percentage of their housing stock within affordable limits. The guidelines could have been useful but they had no teeth and what counted as affordable was loosely defined. As this 2015 Chicago Tribune article suggests, wealthier communities did not submit to the guidelines and “Lee acknowledged that the agency has no authority to enforce the mandate if municipalities do not submit affordable housing plans.” Nothing really changed – and I’m guessing this was intentional.
  6. Federal government. Even though the United States has public housing, it was difficult to get off the ground and is not viewed favorably by many. That whole single-family homes fights communism thing plus the American ideal is everyone owning a home. Even if public housing had some successes, on the whole federal efforts have promoted white suburbs mortgages for single-family homes are subsidized. Results for federal initiatives involving vouchers, such as Moving to Opportunity, are mixed as many of the residents end up in similar poor neighborhoods and it is not clear if certain long-term outcomes such as education and employment are positively affected. Federal efforts consistently draw negative responses from conservatives. Operators in the housing industry – the National Association of Home Builders, the National Association of Realtors, lenders, and others – mobilize to protect the mortgage interest deduction and single-family homes. American Apartheid suggested we lack the political will to enforce the 1968 Housing Act and thus we still have discrimination in housing (from mortgages to real estate agents to landlords and more).
  7. The court system. Given the relative lack of action by local and state officials, housing and zoning cases do occasionally make it to state and federal courts. I argued a few years back that I could envision the Supreme Court approving inclusionary zoning (I’m not sure I still think this given the current makeup of the court). They can indeed take action and compel other governmental bodies to address issues. Some famous cases include the Gatreaux case in Chicago where a court ordered scattered-site housing and the Mount Laurel cases in New Jersey combating exclusionary zoning. The problem with these is that they require taking legal action in the first place, they can take a long time to litigate, and while the results may be compelling, they are still often viewed unfavorably and putting the changes into action are not easy.
  8. Non-profits and religious groups. Either sets of groups have limited resources – housing is a very expensive proposition on a large scale – or are more interested in other concerns. Groups like Habitat for Humanity may do good things but they can only build so many houses and not all communities or neighborhoods are welcoming to their projects. Churches, particularly big ones, could access a good amount of resources but housing is more of a structural issue that many conservative Christians may not want to get into.

All of these options are difficult to implement. On the whole, many wealthier suburbanites and urban residents do not want any kind of cheaper or subsidized housing in their neighborhoods or community.

If I had to pick two levels that provide the best opportunities, I might go with local government and the courts. Zoning guidelines are often developed by average citizens sitting on local committees. Get named to such committees and you can influence this process. The courts are a way to get around the unpopularity of introducing cheaper housing as such measure are unlikely to find broad support. At the same time, as noted above, the court route has its own challenges.

Perhaps the most daunting option in my mind is trying to influence the federal level. Does any political party talk seriously about housing? After all, one journalist captured this quote:

The former governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, told me this: “Most countries have socialized health care and a free market for mortgages. You in the United States do exactly the opposite.”

It will be hard to alter an entire system based on providing socialized mortgages for the middle-class and above.

CHA’s Plan for Transformation didn’t transform public housing much

A new report from WBEZ suggests the Chicago’s Plan for Transformation has not met its goals:

Now, more than 17 years and $3 billion later, only 7.81 percent of the 16,846 households under the Plan For Transformation live in mixed-income communities, according to data from the CHA obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act through a joint study by WBEZ and Northwestern University’s Medill Social Justice News Nexus.

The rest of the households?

  • 20.81 percent live on a Housing Choice or Section 8 voucher
  • 15.97 percent live in traditional public housing
  • 11.99 percent were evicted
  • 9.59 percent have died

The remaining 33.82 percent are living without a government subsidy.

The Plan For Transformation is the largest remake of public housing in the nation. It has simultaneously produced new communities and tracts of vacant land, gentrification and segregation throughout the city.

Arguably, the most “successful” part of the Plan for Transformation was limiting the visibility of public housing  by demolishing high-rise buildings. But, that did little to help the public housing residents or the neighborhoods in which the high-rises were located (Cabrini-Green is an exception because it was already located near wealthier and whiter residents). All that money and effort…could it have worked out better if it (1) wasn’t managed by the CHA (which has a poor record over decades of providing public housing) or (2) wasn’t located in Chicago (the one Rust Belt city that has supposedly made it but still has serious problems including residential segregation)? Efforts elsewhere have also been mixed – leading to the thought that perhaps the federal government can’t do much in this area. This doesn’t mean that the idea of public housing is worthless but maybe that issues of race, class, and residential segregation are really difficult to overcome.

Skepticism on whether the AFFH will improve urban housing

An overview of how the Trump administration might work with the Obama administration’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule includes this skepticism from a sociologist:

While these baby steps are improvements on the status quo, it’s easy to see why many housing experts remain skeptical of the rule. “The whole history of enforcement of fair-housing law … shows that more conservative and more liberal politicians use different rhetoric but act pretty much the same,” Brown University’s John Logan, a well-regarded expert on segregation, told me. “Only through court action, with HUD and/or localities as defendants, have real steps been taken.” The history is certainly not heartening.

The real question regarding housing integration or affordable housing is how government officials can convince wealthier white residents to live near cheaper housing and non-white residents. Residential integration does not come easily, and as Logan suggests, court action is often required before it will happen. If the new AAFH is successful, will it be because fair housing is built in less white and less wealthy areas?