By David M. Greenwald
In many circles, just about everyone has been talking about the NY Times discussion between Ezra Klein and Jerusalem Demsas on housing and infrastructure. (Podcast here).
The left deserves a lot of blame here and if you are looking for a defense of left policies in cities, you will not get it from me.
As anyone has who has read the Vanguard knows, there is a clear divide on the left between homeowners and non-homeowners. There is a divide between progressivism and what you may call limousine liberal, or probably better described as upper middle class liberalism.
Some of these boundary lines are not as clear as we would like to make them. For example, establishment versus non-establishment may not accurately divide the line here.
There is some interesting stuff, but I also think some historical errors.
“There is a stereotype of the cleavage in American politics, which is that Democrats want to use the government to do big things, and Republicans don’t, and that is the fight,” Klein says but he also points out “there’s a bit of a divided Democrat soul here.”
But then he notes “that was… partially in response to these periods in the ‘50s and ‘60s when you had Robert Moses cutting up minority communities with highways in New York.”
(Of course anyone who has read Robert Caro’s epic work, The Power Broker, knows that Moses was not only a Republican, but an elitist and rather conservative one at that. But I digress).
Jerusalem Demsas rightly points out that “there’s very little reckoning of the fact that there are large swaths of the community that makes up progressives that have also engaged in regulatory capture. And that things like homeownership, and things like blocking housing, and transit, and infrastructure in their communities is something that’s not being done by developers or some kind of nefarious other force.”
As UC Davis law professor Chris Elmendorf tweeted this weekend, “I wish they’d paid more attention to organized groups that oppose prohousing reforms at state level and in liberal cities, and the rhetoric in which they couch their opposition.”
As anyone who has read my work on this subject, that’s a big problem and it’s not neatly pigeonholed into a progressive-conservative dichotomy or even a progressive-liberal one.
Demsas continues, saying that “participatory democracy does not actually solve this problem.”
In fact, you can argue the opposite.
“You have structural issues with the fact that people who are willing to engage in these kinds of local politics are systematically older, systematically whiter, and systematically they’re more likely to be homeowners and have a preference towards stability rather than growth and change,” he writes.
As Elmendorf: “It’s become an item of faith among significant segments of the Left that new housing is bad for poor people unless it’s deed-restricted affordable — despite mountains of evidence to the contrary.”
Klein points out, if you look at San Francisco—one of the most liberal and at the same time least affordable cities, “the people who are organizing to stop this stuff.
“I don’t want to say it’s not rational behavior, because it is,” Klein continued. “I mean, you can be doing amazingly well and still want your house to go up in value. You can be doing amazingly well and not want your life to be inconvenienced. I’m not even saying that it is — on a local level — cruel behavior.”
He goes further, pointing out that “even if I give you all kinds of economic data showing you it’d be better for people if you made it more dense, they don’t want that to happen. And that’s actually a legitimate human interest.”
Jerusalem Demsas responds, saying “certainly it’s not the case that all of NIMBYism or all of opposition to housing development, or transit development, or helping progressive policy at local level can be explained by these incentives. But there’s clearly racism and classism. You can hear it when you go to public meetings. You can hear the way people talk about it.”
He adds that “all these people can also have classist views, and of course have xenophobic views, or whatever it is. But it is clearly the case that the tenor of these conversations is so heightened because there are real financial stakes for a lot of people.”
He notes: “[I]t’s different for someone who is a wealthy tech worker in San Francisco who bought a house in 1970, and has locked in a really low property tax rate that’s just saving them tons of money.”
On the other hand, “that doesn’t explain what’s happening at every other level, where homeowners are also opposing these policies, despite being essentially identical to the types of people who benefit from them.”
I think this debate sets up the next great battle in land use in California.
As Elmendorf points out: “The next front for such politics is reform of single-family zoning. Witness debate in SF about how many units in resulting 4-plex must be deed-restricted affordable in order for a SFH conversion to be allowed.”
Bottom line then, I think this conversation shows that it is really self-interest rather than ideology driving this debate. I think we saw this very clearly in Davis a month ago when the dividing line over the Housing Element was clearly defined first by age and second by homeownership.
Those who are homeowners bought their houses in the 70s and 80s and clearly see the world very differently then those who are not homeowners.
So what we are really seeing is not necessarily ideological. Or it is ideological, it is what Ezra Klein referred to as “symbolically liberal, operationally conservative.”
In February he wrote: “There is an old finding in political science that Americans are ‘symbolically conservative’ but ‘operationally liberal.’ Americans talk like conservatives but want to be governed like liberals. In California, the same split political personality exists, but in reverse: We’re often symbolically liberal, but operationally conservative.”
In other words, they use the language of progressives but in ways that preserve the status quo. That’s the housing battle in a nutshell.