By David M. Greenwald
An op-ed published in the San Francisco Chronicle caught my eye: “Why California liberals turn into raging conservatives over housing”—Davis is now a microcosm of the state, only a lot worse.
I learned this lesson early on in my time in Davis—Davis only looks deeply progressive. Clearly, on some issues it is—about 11 percent of Davis voters, for instance, voted for Trump in 2020. It is a community with a strong environmental record.
But when it comes to issues like civil rights and housing, not so much.
As Michael Manville points out this weekend, “California is arguably the deepest blue state in America… But California’s housing shortage threatens to make a mockery of its other progressive accomplishments.”
The bad: “Our state remains deeply segregated by income and race. Its poverty rate, when living expenses are accounted for, is the nation’s highest. Soaring rents and home prices force many people to live far from where they work, contributing to long commutes and climate change. Most visibly and tragically, in a state that prides itself for offering opportunity, over 150,000 people are homeless.”
He allows that simply “allowing more housing cannot by itself solve California’s crisis,” and he points out “it’s also true that California’s crisis has no viable solution that doesn’t involve allowing more housing. And that’s a problem because California’s version of liberalism doesn’t include liberal housing laws.”
Substitute Davis for California and the sentence still works.
The question I had is which way did he want to go with this argument. I actually see two things at work. One is that many have bought into the line of protecting the environment over attacking economic inequality. This is not true for everyone, but there does seem to be a dividing line between the crunchy granola left and the civil rights left.
But that’s not the way Manville goes. He goes right at the comfortable, upper middle-class privileged left.
It is easy for the left to attack housing because housing is generally built by developers, who are seen as their own version of big business capitalists. Developer is a dirty word on the left.
“Our version of progressive politics espouses limits on new housing development,” he writes.
But there is a bit of hypocrisy here as well: “Many liberals own homes, and an old idea in political science suggests that homeownership bends local politics to the right.”
As he pointed out: “Homeowners, though they probably don’t see themselves as such, are capitalists.” He continues: “For homeowners, new development is competition. And no capitalist likes competition. It’s a threat to a vulnerable stock of wealth.”
While I’m not sure I agree with all of this, Manville, an associate professor of urban planning at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, cites research that backs this up.
He also found that “owning a home did not influence attitudes about national policies, like gun control or health care; it only shifted opinions about housing.”
Manville of course points out that not only does every liberal not own a home, but “perhaps (a) larger issue is that allowing more development just doesn’t seem liberal.”
But what we have seen is that homeownership seems to account for opposition to new housing—most of the time. In other words, here in Davis, we have seen the dividing line, between support for more housing and opposition to it, being age—but age as a proxy for homeownership, with people who own homes less likely to support new housing.
Manville does dive into what I think is a big problem as well—allowing more development really doesn’t seem liberal or progressive.
He writes, “Denser development requires deregulation — relaxing zoning and other rules — and deregulation is an ideologically charged concept often associated with conservatism. So even if development creates liberal outcomes (more affordability and less segregation), it might do so through what looks like an illiberal process.”
Furthermore, “many liberals might not think new housing generates liberal outcomes.”
I’ll admit it took me a while to figure this out. I had a knee-jerk reaction against more development and housing—because a lot of developers and development were “reckless and destructive.” Developers were gutting neighborhoods “to make room for freeways or star-crossed megaprojects.” They were tearing down low-income houses to build expensive condos, creating gentrification, driving out the poor Blacks.
Manville points out: “Development earned some of its bad reputation, and many liberals internalized the idea that fairness required opposing it.”
This also has a rational basis. He writes: “Market-rate development is, at least superficially, strange medicine for a housing crisis, in that it carries all the outward hallmarks of the disease it purports to cure. The housing it produces is often expensive, and the developers who build it aren’t trying to cure anything: They’re trying to make a profit. And because the new housing is expensive, the people who move in tend to be well-off.”
We see this argument all the time.
“Using market-rate development to alleviate a housing crisis involves rolling back regulations to let profit-minded entrepreneurs build expensive housing for affluent people. We shouldn’t be surprised if many people, especially liberals, don’t find that persuasive,” he writes.
But he points out, “[T]he fact that something isn’t persuasive doesn’t make it wrong. Counterintuitive or not, California needs a lot more housing, and the fastest, cheapest way to get housing is to let developers build it.”
It is here that Manville attacks the crux of the Davis argument against new housing—it’s too expensive. We saw this debate for weeks. Whenever a new student housing project came up, the “adults” in the community yelled that it was too expensive and the students just wanted the housing because they knew it would increase the supply and ultimately help them.
Sterling, for instance, got built. It is expensive. It is also sold out.
Manville does a brilliant job here of attacking this issue head-on.
“(A)llowing market-rate development does mean producing expensive housing,” he writes. “But so does NOT allowing development.”
The problem is that we see the expensive housing, we don’t see the impact of not allowing development.
He writes: “When we don’t build, the price of existing housing goes up.” Indeed, “Instead of turning empty lots into expensive homes, we turn cheap homes into expensive homes. The consequences are less visible — it’s easier to notice a new building physically than an old building’s price rising — but also more damaging.”
As he points out: “Blocking supply doesn’t blunt demand.”
The bottom line: “Our housing policy can divert these people into gleaming new buildings when they arrive or unleash them onto older buildings where our lower-income residents currently live.”
This is the problem that we have to come to grips with: embracing the option of more housing means that we have to come to terms with deregulation, and he points out that “deregulation needn’t always be conservative.”
The left embraces it on things like immigration, criminal justice, drugs and the like.
He concludes: “We have a housing crisis because we don’t build, and we don’t build because we have a fundamentally conflicted relationship with housing.”
This was a really good piece—it captured a lot of the dissonance on the left to new housing. The real problem can be summarized as this: we attack new housing that looks expensive but lose sight of the fact that not building turns inexpensive housing into expensive housing. It just happens over time and less visibly.