Joel Kotkin

5 Reasons We Need More Federal Intervention in Housing

The United Cities of America (wired via garrettdashnelson)

The United Cities of America (wired via garrettdashnelson)

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.

The Crisis of Urbanism is a Crisis of Americanism

Onward, willingly in the dark (masscommunications)

Onward, willingly in the dark (masscommunications)

This Friday in Kansas City at the KCADC annual meeting, two prominent urban scholars with opposing views of urbanism will meet for the first time on a single stage to debate the direction of modern urbanism.  Richard Florida and Joel Kotkin are both well known in the urban policy world and are also well known not to care for each other’s vision of a future America. 

At the heart of their disagreements, however, lies awareness that the current rebound of American cities is not producing the types of economic and social ‘rising-tide’ that most had hoped for.  Many people, including Mr. Florida, are referring to this as the “crisis of urbanism.” How to address the increasing economic inequality in cities while creating policies that combat climate change are the central questions facing urbanism and will likely be at the center of Friday’s debate.

Readers of this blog will recognize many of the concerns about our current form of urbanism.  I have written about a number of the misconceptions about the ‘urban renaissance’ including the fact that more Americans are still moving to suburbs rather than inner-urban cores.  I’ve written about how gentrification is just another form of sprawl – which itself is a form of white supremacy in its basic structure – that is increasing already-damaging segregation in our cities.  I’ve written about how our schizophrenic housing, transportation, and education policies are failing to provide enough options for families of different economic backgrounds across neighborhoods let alone regions.  I’ve also written about how the concentration of economic activity in a small segment of (largely coastal) cities is having a profoundly negative impact on social and economic mobility.

21st century urbanism should be a great economic engine that can simultaneously address social mobility and environmental sustainability, but it hasn’t proven to be so far. Both gentlemen have identified the same problems in their work, though through different lenses, and have different opinions as to why.

Richard Florida famously coined the term ‘creative classes’ in 2002 to identify how cities could become drivers of the modern economy by focusing on attracting younger, highly skilled workers.  The idea that urban amenities were more attractive to this worker base and thus more attractive to potential entrepreneurs and employers has largely proven to be true.  Over 50% of new job growth in the last 15 years has come from only 2.5% of American counties, all of them dense urban environments. However, as Mr. Florida acknowledges, this progress has come at a steep cost in the form of economic and social immobility for many less-educated workers.

Joel Kotkin has emerged as a contrarian not so much to this trend, but to its consequences. He has been skeptical of most peoples’ interest in living in dense cities and how many people can benefit from those types of jobs and policies. He has also been critical of policymakers’ attempts to ‘engineer’ this outcome and points to the increased inequalities of our cities as examples of the failure of this mindset.

Mr. Kotkin advocates for ‘localism’ which is a loosely-defined concept based around the rejection of centralized planning, whether it comes to zoning or other regulations of the built environment, with a focus of homeownership as a stabilizing civic force.  He thinks communities have a stronger record of creating policies tailored to its needs and has stronger incentive to address the issues facing it as opposed to a state or federal agency full of planners.

Given the history of urban planning, especially during the urban renewal period, Mr. Kotkin’s skepticism towards central planning has merit.  Many of the orthodoxies adopted during this period have had damaging, long-lasting consequences, particularly for minorities.  Attempts to unravel those past mistakes have also proven to be clumsy or ineffective.  Trusting the stakeholders in local communities to define how they want to live is an entirely reasonable, and essentially American, concept.

However, ‘localism’ has proven to be just as flawed.  First of all, the decentralized suburbs that tend to form the basis of Mr. Kotkin’s preferred environment were themselves products of a very concentrated, very centralized federal effort to plan the future of the country. There is no way to show objective evidence that people prefer the suburbs when they were subsidized strongly to do so for generations.  It’s unlikely that our country would like the way it does – largely suburban rather than urban or rural - if not for massive government intervention. This has permanently filtered our view of the built environment.

Second, as Mr. Kotkin has conceded, the keys to these developments and towns were handed over to local stakeholders that turned around and locked the door to many minorities and ‘undesirables’ that were likely to be renters.  As Rick Perlstein described in Nixonland, racial backlash amongst homeowners over integration (as opposed to small government ideology) was the organizing principle of the rightward lurch of the Republican Party.  How creating policies to address these injustices gets called “social engineering” while the original conscious discrimination does not is confounding.

The debate over urbanism is of course part of a larger debate over the nature of the state.  Should the state organize itself in such a way to maximize the utility for as many of its citizens as possible or in such a way as to have as minimal an impact on its citizens as possible? This debate is as old as America itself, even as it has taken on different shapes and forms over the years.

This debate is healthy in a republic and, if encouraged and supported by institutions trusted by the people, can produce stunning progress based on shared, if contested goals.  However, our current political polarization has undermined the ability to have this debate. In fact, it calls into question our very ability to address large, complex problems as a nation. 

Given the erosion of our politics and the corporatism that has filled the vacuum, it is hard to argue that our republic is healthy at all.  Nor is it easy to determine what either party believes to be a positive future for it. We've entered into what Adam Curtis has called a "HyperNormalization" where we know the system is broken, but do nothing to change it.

(With the 2016 Presidential Election a week away, the urban/rural polarization of politics has become alarmingly pronounced.  Seeing Mr. Florida and Mr. Kotkin comment on how this impacts urban policy will be a highlight of the debate on Friday. )

The stakes in the larger debate over urbanism are demonstrably higher now because of one simple issue: climate change. Of course, it isn’t a ‘simple’ issue in our political discourse, but it is as a practical matter.  Climate change is unquestionably real, unquestionably human-made, and unquestionably a threat to our long-term existence. The fact that this statement might be dismissed or criticized by some people is disheartening and dangerous.  It is also disingenuous, but that’s another discussion.

The development policies implemented over the 20th century in America have led the way in causing climate change and has served as an unfortunately tempting map for other industrialized and developing countries.  Our reliance on fossil fuel burning homes and cars, our preference for cheap, disposable goods and foods, our growth-focused consumerism in general have all severely damaged our planet as well as our societies and our bodies.

Now that we know the consequences of these related development policies, we must do everything we can to mitigate them and to reverse them for future generations.  Mr. Kotkin might criticize ‘centralized planning’, but he has recognized its necessity at other times in American history – the New Deal, WWII, and the Civil Rights era for example. To the extent that the US can even centrally plan to fight climate change, surely this is as important, if not more so?

Mr. Florida and Mr. Kotkin no doubt will have a respectful and lively debate centered on issues of urbanism.  But they will be addressing the very idea of living in America, whether they acknowledge it or not.  How we organize the built environment in the 21st century, knowing now the consequences of how we did so in the 20th century, will define what America is to become, how plentiful it will be, and how aspirational it will remain.