This past week, Urban Institute released a report on the dire state of the affordable housing crisis. Put simply, every county in the country has a significant shortage of affordable rental housing. Every. Single. County. This report focuses on extremely low-income (ELI) households (which make 30% of average median income) and shows that there are only 21 market-rate units for every 100 ELI renter households. The number climbs to 46 units with federal programs. On it’s own, this report shows why federal intervention in housing is so important to this population, but taken in a broader context, it shows why we need to re-embrace the type of large-scale federal intervention that we saw from the 1930s-1960s. Here are five reasons.
1. Localism Makes Things Worse
“Localism” is a call for more local autonomy that acknowledges the deep geographical divisions that have paralyzed our federal government. Frenemies Richard Florida and Joel Kotkin have come together to make a compelling argument for why the only way to overcome this is to essentially admit defeat, avoid relying on the federal government, and let local preferences control tax dollars/policy.
As I explained in last week’s blog, though both scholars, coming from different ideological perspectives, present solid reasons for supporting this idea, there are two practical problems that would potentially make the housing crisis worse.
First, we already have localism and it stinks. As Matthew Yglesias pointed out recently about Palo Alto, localized planning policy has skewed political outcomes for one constituency – the connected present – at the expense of the non-connected present (and the future). These local groups in these select economic areas are suffocating the entire national economy. Right now.
Second, the history of NYC before the dawn of federal intervention in the 1930s shows that in many cases, even at the local level, the interests of “financial power” and “voting power” rarely align and at best create a corrupt status quo that serves only the leaders of each faction. We wouldn’t likely see a return to political machines, but can we assume that contemporary “financial power” and “voting power” have similar political goals? Or can they find political strategies that both sides buy into?
Whether its local planning policies that prevent growth or deeply divided local political interests, our current reliance on localism is counterproductive. Removing the small federal power that exists now would only make these issues worse. We need to supersede these local interests as a nation.
2. Regionalism Has Too Many Boundaries
A counter-argument presented to localism is regionalism. Amy Liu wrote about several areas – Chicago, Denver, and Seattle – where local municipalities are working together, across city-lines, to create equitable development. Though these examples are encouraging, they show the larger political conundrum of planning this way.
Regions, let alone cities, are not recognized in the Constitution, which poses fundamental challenges to cooperation and coordination at the sub-state level. You only need to look at the dysfunction in North Carolina over Charlotte’s bathroom policy to show that the partisan divisions at the federal level are just as toxic, if not more so, at the state level. Cities and regions are not powerful enough to overcome bad state-level planning.
Even worse, NYC shows the challenge of interstate coordination. Hundreds of thousands of commuters are stuck in perma-hell over the deteriorating train tunnels under the Hudson River, partly because NY and NJ have bickered about who pays for what. Forget Bridgegate, Governor Chris Christie's legacy will be scandalized for canceling ARC.
State boundaries in many cases do not reflect the larger economic and political cohesion of a commuter-shed and instead have the affect of pitting residents of the same region against each other or putting residents in one state under the whims of politicians in another. The only recognized power to overcome these obstacles – to get cities, states, and regions to work together - is the federal government.
3. There Already is Intervention - Just the Wrong Kind
The US is a majority suburban, majority homeowner society. Why? Because the government decided that we should be. More specifically, the US federal government decided to promote white homeownership and car ownership as the bedrocks of the post-war American economy by building free highways, underwriting mortgages, and segregating neighborhoods.
There is nothing organic or market-driven about how our communities are organized in America. These were political choices that tipped the scales decidedly towards certain outcomes that were not pre-destined and were certainly not universally accessible.
Over the last 80 years, the US government has spent trillions of dollars subsidizing the suburban expansion of our country. Even today, 60% of government spending on housing (over $100b) goes to subsidizing homes for wealthy Americans. We don’t think of this as a ‘handout’ in the classic sense, but it absolutely is and it has had immeasurable consequences to our society.
If we acknowledge that the federal government has always played a central role in our economy, we can get over the childish ideologies that continue to harm our country. Instead, we can focus on how we want the government to intervene.
Do we really want to spend billions of dollars subsiding the homes of wealthy Americans when we can spend a fraction of that on providing guaranteed, affordable housing to all vulnerable citizens? This isn’t a crazy, ideological question. It’s a value judgment first and foremost, but it also makes more economic sense on top of that.
If the economy is moving towards innovative jobs clustered in urban areas, we need to build more housing in those communities to encourage spillover affects for all workers. The federal government has picked housing winners for 80 years - we just need it to pick different ones now.
4. Late Capitalism is Eroding Our Civil Society
Late capitalism is an increasingly mainstream term to describe the inevitability of the economic and political malaise we have been in (depending on how you measure it) for decades. We are in a sustained period of inequality, inopportunity, and insecurity that shows, demonstrably, that something is deeply wrong with our economy and the politics organizing it. The person who ignores this is a fool and the person who defends it is a villain.
Just as I outlined in the previous section, this is no accident. The federal government over the last 40 years has tilted the economic playing field towards stateless globalization, corporatist monopoly, and sanctioned corruption. The logical conclusion of this unabated trend is social collapse. Maybe that sounds hyperbolic, but the populism seen on both ends of the political spectrum in the US and across much of the western world is a direct response to late capitalism and another step towards this frightening possibility. How (and if) this anger can be channeled constructively is the great political question of our time.
However, as we’ve seen during other eras of extreme political and financial inequality, that anger can be channeled positively at the federal level. The legislation passed during the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the Great Society were all far-reaching attempts to address massive, system-level problems (obviously with uneven results.) Just as federal policies are the cause of many of these current problems, they can and must be the solution too.
5. It’s the Environment, Stupid
All of this comes back to the ghost at the feast: climate change. Sorry Bret Stephens, but there is no debate about the danger this poses to our society. Sure, scientists don’t know exactly how, where, or when these changes will manifest as an existential threat, but it’s not an academic question. We are experiencing this all over the world right now.
The simple, unsexy truth is that our development history – sprawl – has been terrible for the environment overall and terrible for the health of many people specifically. (One area where HUD Secretary Ben Carson has shown some potential is this connection between housing and health.)
Creating denser communities where housing and jobs are walkable and connected to public transit isn’t some liberal fantasy for its own sake. It’s a proven form of addressing inequalities and inefficiencies harming our environment and our collective health.
Localism and regionalism can’t address the dangers of climate change if some localities “want” to maintain sprawl. Decades of federal intervention in homeownership and car ownership that cause climate change can’t naturally be reversed. The ills of late capitalism that have damaged the physical and political health of our society won’t fix themselves.
The federal government is the only entity strong enough and ultimately legitimate enough to adequately address all of these problems. Giving up on this idea, as academics or advocates, is giving up on the American experiment itself.
Rather than abandon the idea that the federal government can help, we must commit ourselves to a national “reboot” of political, economic, and social priorities.
Starting with housing seems like the logical place to begin this process. The moral urgency of the housing crisis calls for big, bold national ideas. The economic and social benefits of committing the nation to housing-as-a-right are self-evident. Where and how we build that housing may just be the difference between a sustainable future or something far darker.