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).

How skate parks became normal in America

There are skate parks in many American neighborhoods and communities and this was not necessarily a sure thing decades ago:

The Tony Hawk Foundation, a leading partner in the construction of skate parks in the United States, estimates that there are roughly 3,500 skate parks in the country now — still about a third of what it says the country needs…

In a different time, hoping for city officials to get on board with building a skate park seemed like an impossible task. Mr. Whitley said a great deal of Nimby-ism once plagued developments.

But aging Gen X grew up alongside skateboarding’s ascent in popular culture, from Bart Simpson plonking down onto the roof of the family car in the opening sequence of “The Simpsons” to blockbuster video game franchises like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. Skateboarding is no longer something people fear. The skate punk of the late 1980s is now a suburban dad. Across runways, and in music videos and film, subtle influences of skate culture are noticeable. Everyone wears Vans sneakers…

Iain Borden, a professor of architecture and urban culture at University College in London, wrote the book “Skateboarding, Space, and the City” in 2000. He also sees the growth of skate parks as a social phenomenon. “They’re places of social exchange,” he said. “You could argue that they’re not sports facilities, they’re social landscapes in which skateboarding and riding and scootering and blading are some of the activities that you might do.”

The recreational activities of one generation do not necessarily endure over decades so the spread of skateparks is an intriguing subject. I would be interested to see in what kinds of neighborhoods these parks exist: are they as prevalent in poorer neighborhoods or the wealthiest communities (who might opposed them on NIMBY grounds)?

I also wonder how much race plays a role in this in the United States. The examples of skateboarding cited above – Tony Hawk, Bart Simpson – are white and more middle-class. Come to think of it, many of the X Games competitors fall into this group. Since these are not exactly mainstream sports (compared to the big four of football, baseball, basketball, and hockey) plus they require a few resources (at least a skateboard while other X Games sports require more), these may not be available to all. While skateboarding might the punk music of the sports world, is it still more palatable to the white middle-class compared to having basketball courts nearby?

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.)

Naming a street for MLK could influence attitudes and behaviors

A debate in Kansas City about naming a road in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. involves asking how the name might affect people:

Some residents argue that choosing a street in a disinvested, mostly black neighborhood would perpetuate stereotypes of thoroughfares that are already named for him in other cities, and would fail to force white people to consider Dr. King’s legacy and the racism that still exists so long after his death. Others, though, say that choosing a street in a white area would be an affront to the city’s black residents and disrespectful of the fact that Dr. King fought primarily for the rights of black people…

Mr. Lucas said he leaned toward giving the name to a street where white people tend to venture more often, because it could have a greater impact there. “There’s something to be said for the fact that you need to make sure the entire community honors it, instead of saying, ‘That’s something the black folks are doing for the black folks in a black area.’ ”…

Complicating this naming fight is a simple truth: Kansas City, like much of the country, struggles with segregation.

For two years, advocates have lobbied the parks board, which oversees the city’s boulevard system, to change the name. Jean-Paul Chaurand, the board president, responded last month with a letter stating that longstanding policy has been to name streets after local residents who made significant contributions to the city. He suggested creating a commission to discuss the renaming further.

This sounds like a ready-made research question: do honorary roads affect attitudes and behaviors over time? Major cities have many such roads, in various neighborhoods, and designated at various times which would give researchers plenty of variation to work with. I wonder if such research would show minimal positive effects in a city overall (though it could be more important in particular locations, as noted in the discussion above) but then it might be argued that not naming such roads – particularly in a case like Martin Luther King, Jr. – would have negative repercussions.

See an earlier post where Illinois legislators discussed creating a Barack Obama roadway. If Reagan has a highway (the Ronald Reagan Memorial Highway in Illinois among others in the United States), shouldn’t Obama get one as well?

More evidence of discrimination in mortgages by race and ethnicity

The Center for Investigate Reporting went through 31 million records created by the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act and found disparities:

The analysis – independently reviewed and confirmed by The Associated Press – showed black applicants were turned away at significantly higher rates than whites in 48 cities, Latinos in 25, Asians in nine and Native Americans in three. In Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital, Reveal found all four groups were significantly more likely to be denied a home loan than whites.

Reveal’s analysis included all records publicly available under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, covering nearly every time an American tried to buy a home with a conventional mortgage in 2015 and 2016. It controlled for nine economic and social factors, including an applicant’s income, the amount of the loan, the ratio of the size of the loan to the applicant’s income and the type of lender, as well as the racial makeup and median income of the neighborhood where the person wanted to buy property.

Credit score was not included because that information is not publicly available. That’s because lenders have deflected attempts to force them to report that data to the government, arguing it would not be useful in identifying discrimination. 

This is an ongoing pattern. While I was in graduate school, I had a little experience working with the millions of HMDA records since my advisor, Rich Williams, had published on the topic. For example, see his 2005 article in Social Problems.

And lest we think that this is just about applicants of different races or ethnicities with equal standing receiving different treatment (generally the point of audit studies), it was even worse before the housing bubble burst:

In 2006, at the height of the boom, black and Hispanic families making more than $200,000 a year were more likely on average to be given a subprime loan than a white family making less than $30,000 a year…

Relative to comparable white applicants, and controlling for geographic factors, blacks were 2.8 times more likely to be denied for a loan, and Latinos were two times more likely. When they were approved, blacks and Latinos were 2.4 times more likely to receive a subprime loan than white applicants. The higher up the income ladder you compare white applicants and minorities, the wider this subprime disparity grows.

Or another study:

According to the study’s authors, the economists Patrick Bayer, Fernando Ferreira, and Stephen L. Ross, race and ethnicity were among two of the key factors that determined whether or not a borrower would end up with a high-cost loan, when all other variables were held equal. According to them, even after controlling for general risk considerations, such as credit score, loan-to-value ratio, subordinate liens, and debt-to-income ratios, Hispanic Americans are 78 percent more likely to be given a high-cost mortgage, and black Americans are 105 percent more likely.

Or see the $175 million fine leveled at Wells Fargo for steering minorities to worse loans.

This reminds of the conclusion of American Apartheid where the sociologists Doug Massey and Nancy Denton argue that Americans lack the will to enforce existing laws about housing discrimination. Even with a variety of laws and regulations intended to eliminate discrimination in housing, there is not a completely level playing level field.

Defining a social problem: “transit gaps” or “transit deserts”

One skeptic of the concept of transit gaps explains his concerns:

The Chicago-based nonprofit Center for Neighborhood Technology recently unveiled its AllTransit Gap Finder—an online mapping tool designed to point out areas with “inadequate” transit service. It’s a good effort, and it’s certainly good that we have more tools for understanding transit demand…

A transit gap is some kind of difference between transit service and transit need or demand. But need and demand are different things. A need means that there are people whose lives would be better if they had transit. A demand is an indication that transit service, if it were provided, would achieve high ridership.

These terms correspond to the two opposing goals of transit service. If the goal of service is ridership, then it should provide excellent service where there is demand. On the other hand, many people who need transit wouldn’t be served if transit agencies ran only high-ridership service. So transit agencies run a certain amount of service for the non-ridership goal of coverage, which responds to need. In other words, they spread service out so that everyone has a little bit, even though low ridership is the predictable outcome. This critical distinction is explained more fully here. It’s a difficult budgetary choice about dividing resources between competing goals, one that local governments need to think about…

Although AllTransit’s claims are framed in misleading terms, the idea of being able to accurately see exactly how well any given neighborhood is served by transit is a laudable one. Over the years I’ve written about other efforts to get this right. An especially important idea, buried deep in the overly complex methodology, is that a transit quality index should be about where you can get to in a given amount of time, rather than what transit is available. In my own work I routinely use this measure to describe the human benefits of transit service changes, because getting to destinations, and having a choice of more destinations, is what makes for a great life.

There seems to be two issues here: separating community values from possibilities as well as how to best measure transportation options. No city has an endless pot of money with which to fund mass transit. Yet, I imagine proponents of transit deserts would note that the general American orientation is toward driving and roads while mass transit has to regularly scrap for money. The measurement issue is hopefully an ongoing conversation as researchers with different decisions and aims work to find measures that both reflect the social realities as well as provide helpful information for residents and local governments.

But, I also suspect that this is critique is missing a key concern of some of those working in the food/transit/grocery stores/parks/medical care desert literature: the key is which groups are most affected by these deserts or have less access to these necessities. Many of the deserts – however defined and regardless of the goals of the community – seem to affect lower class and non-white residents. One could argue that a community might not have the resources or vision to extend mass transit to a particular area but this does not necessarily address the issue of residential segregation that is alive and well in the United States.

How Census questions muddle race and ethnicity for Latinos

Sociologist Richard Alba explains how the Census does not accurately capture racial and ethnic change:

Sticking with the two-question format means that the great majority of young people with mixed Hispanic and white origins will be categorized only as Hispanic — and therefore as “nonwhite,” in census terminology. This classification will often contradict how they perceive and experience their identity, and how they’re treated by the world around them.

And it is sociological nonsense. A growing body of data reveals that individuals from mixed families look more like whites than they do like minorities — except for those who are partly black. The exception demonstrates, it should be emphasized, the persistent and severe racism that confronts Americans with visible African heritage.

 

And these measurements then affect projections for the future as well as political reactions:

And classifying those from mixed Hispanic and white families as “nonwhites” results in Census Bureau population projections of a majority-minority society by the mid-2040s. But such projections are grossly misleading because of the binary thinking that undergirds them and the misclassification of individuals who are partly white and partly minority…

In the 2016 presidential election, according to research Michael Tesler has reported here at The Monkey Cage, President Trump appears to have gained many votes from whites because of their anxiety about a rapidly changing society that would soon leave them as part of a minority.

At the least, we should keep in mind that racial and ethnic definitions can and do change over time due to a variety of factors: understandings within particular groups (self-understanding), understandings from other groups in society (pressures from the outside, particularly dominant groups), and how race and ethnicity are measured.

This could also raise questions about forecasts for the future of society – especially decades out. On one hand, we want to be able to prepare for changes and trends. On the other hand, demographic trends and shifts in behaviors and attitudes are not set in stone. Both researchers and leaders need to be flexible – or in terms of one of the current buzzwords, resilient  – enough to adapt.