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The big, gaping hole in the liberal policy arsenal
America's cities are in dire need of affordable housing. And liberal politicians aren't putting forth bold solutions.
 
Finding housing for everyone in cities such as New York remains a challenge.
Finding housing for everyone in cities such as New York remains a challenge. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Wonkish circles are abuzz with new ideas of late. The reformicons, the band of policy-minded conservatives who are trying to nudge the GOP toward sanity, have had some success in branding themselves as the new policy hotness and got a boost last week with the release of an anti-poverty plan by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) that wasn't completely terrible. Danny Vinik at The New Republic argues that lefties need to follow suit, saying their ideas have grown "stale."

But the problem isn't a lack of ideas — it's crippling political dysfunction. Any lefty could cobble together a strong policy platform by basically copy-and-pasting from FDR, LBJ, and Obama. Here are just a few ideas off the top of my head: immigration reform, an actual climate policy, aggressive fiscal and monetary stimulus, beefing up Social Security, jacking up the minimum wage and indexing it to inflation, strengthening ObamaCare, prison reform, and ending the drug war. To aim high, we might include a universal basic income, single-payer health care, Federal Reserve reform, surveillance reform, and a mission to Mars. The problem, of course, is passing any of that stuff.

However, there is one major piece missing from this policy agenda: affordable housing. It's perhaps the single-largest policy weakness of the liberal coalition. And since conservatives are largely absent from policymaking positions in America's big cities, it is a uniquely liberal problem.

Now, that's not to say that lefties don't pay attention to it at all. On the contrary, it's a major source of organizing and dispute, especially at the local level. The problem is that we haven't gotten the politics or the policy straight. Liberal housing politics tends to miss the forest for the trees, and typical liberal solutions tend to be pitifully inadequate to the scale of the need.

Last week, liberals gasped in outrage at a new luxury apartment building in New York City that had a "poor door" for its low-cost units. And I agree, that's pretty awful. But the awful context is that many, many luxury buildings don't have any affordable units at all.

Furthermore, while segregating a building on class lines is bad, it's worse to redline whole neighborhoods or to offer no place to live at all. I support Mayor Bill de Blasio's effort to ban poor doors altogether, but the fact is that it will be completely inadequate for the cause of affordable housing. (On the other hand, de Blasio does have a fairly encouraging plan to build 80,000 new units of affordable housing, though it is still probably not enough.)

In fact, as Daniel Kay Hertz points out with respect to a neighborhood in Chicago, poor door policy is rampant at the neighborhood level:

Chicago’s policy of giving an effective zoning veto to anyone who has the time, energy, and cultural-political confidence to show up to a meeting and harangue an alderman has resulted in the loss of rental units that would have been much more affordable than the owner-occupied units they were replaced with...

The Jefferson Park project, which probably isn’t seeing a drop in the total number of units, is almost worse for it. The neighbors there aren’t even pretending that their objection is related to density: they just want condo units instead of rentals. Or, more to the point, they want people who can afford condos, not people who can afford rentals. [City Notes]

Similar trends are evident in most big liberal cities. In much of the nation, housing policy is effectively made by retired busybodies, and what they care about more than anything else is preserving or increasing the value of their own property. That means keeping minorities and the poor out.

So, what to do? Housing is a complex issue deeply embedded in an array of different political structures, many of which are highly localized. The traditional liberal solutions of rent control and affordable housing mandates can be part of the policy portfolio, but I think liberals underrate market-ish solutions like glutting the market with moderately sized and small units. How? By upzoning everywhere (especially rich areas), scrapping parking requirements, and relaxing setbacks.

I would also look closely at the phenomenon of rich owners using property as a store of wealth, but only visiting a few times per year. Residence requirements could be instituted to prevent 1 percenter ghost towns and to make sure housing is used.

I also think that many of the noxious political effects outlined above can be traced to trying to use housing policy as a savings vehicle for the middle class. I would scrap the policies, like the mortgage interest deduction, that underpin that.

Above all, I'd keep the gigantic numbers that we're talking about in play. There are something like 12 million households chasing a bit more than 4 million affordable rental units. Some cities will be okay with their existing stock (like Philadelphia and Baltimore), but D.C., Chicago, New York, and San Francisco are going to have to build hundreds of thousands of new units if they're going to have a prayer of providing affordable housing to everyone who needs it.

Of course, this is barely a sketch of an actual program. But the fact is that urban housing is the responsibility of the left, and it's generally not going that well. Outside of New York's reasonably positive efforts, Chicago has roughly half a million households in need of affordable housing, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel is planning to build only 1,000 units. It's time for liberals to be more ambitious.

 
Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at TheWeek.com. His work has appeared in the Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and the Washington Post.

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