By David M. Greenwald
The challenge that the Davis community faces is how it’s going to find ways to build new housing and re-invigorate the community with more young families as it faces problems what the rest of the country is experiencing—unaffordable housing and an age (or in Davis’ case, bifurcating) population.
Increasingly over my time writing for the Vanguard, I have grown to see housing inextricably linked with social justice.
Because I live in Davis, I often focus on Davis housing issues to illustrate the problem. And while Davis is in some ways unique, Davis represents an example of how local issues filter up and help drive the overall state and national housing crisis.
Over the break, I was reading a couple of pieces in the Atlantic that I think are helpful for understanding the overall problem of housing.
For example, Annie Lowrey writes, “The U.S. Needs More Housing Than Almost Anyone Can Imagine.”
She starts with the question that we often find ourselves asking each other: “How many homes must the United States’ expensive coastal cities build to become affordable for middle-class and working-poor families again?”
This is a core of the argument that we have over and over again here in Davis.
Just as we’ve discovered in our debates and conversations over the years, the answer is not simple.
Lowry writes, “I expected a straightforward response: If you build X units, you reduce rents by Y percent—which means that Washington, D.C., needs to build Z units to become broadly affordable again.”
The answer: not so easy to compute. No surprise to any of us who have dived into it.
Jenny Schuetz of the Brookings Institution: “That’s a difficult question with a lot of moving parts.”
“Are we assuming that all of these homes drop out of the sky today?” asked David Garcia, the policy director at the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley.
“All the numbers we have that address this question are huge. They’re massive,” Garcia said. “And they’re all a massive undercount.”
Lowry quickly figures out the problem here: “That strikes me as a problem. No one can say just what it would take to make Brooklyn affordable for workers who don’t have a college degree, render San Francisco accessible to families with kids and elderly couples on fixed incomes, or allow extended-family members in Boston to buy apartments within a few blocks of one another. That means we have no policy vision of how to make our biggest, most productive places affordable for all, and no plan to get there.”
Those of us who have had to live this debate for the past decade know how this ends up. An undefinable solution means that everyone creates the one that they favor. For some, it argues that the market in intractable, that there is no amount of housing that we can build to solve the problem.
For some this means that this is bigger than just one community. It must be solved at the regional level.
The problem with both of these is that they become an excuse for non-movement. If you don’t believe you can build your way out of the housing crisis, then why not at least protect your own. If you don’t believe that there are local solutions to the housing crisis, then wait until a more global solution comes along—and all the while things get worse.
Lowry goes on to show all of the problems that come out of this.
She notes, “The problem is largely, if not exclusively, the result of the country not permitting enough homes where people want them.”
“The reason California has the affordability problems we have now is because we did not build,” said Garcia, of the Terner Center. “In the 1960s, 1970s, even into the 1980s, we built between 200,000 and 300,000 homes per year. In our most recent economic boom, we were building 100,000 a year.” He added: “That is the start and the end of the story when it comes to California.”
People want housing, strangely, because they need jobs and the chance at prosperity. And the places that have those jobs and opportunities for prosperity have not built enough housing in recent decades.
But we don’t want to admit this problem, Jerusalem Demsas argues.
So people are pushing skepticism about the nature of the problem and the solution.
Demsas writes, “Supply skepticism and shortage denialism are pushing against the actual solution to the housing crisis: building enough homes.”
Demsas writes, “Anyone who’s been in a dumb recurring fight knows that the entire problem could be cleared up if everyone could just agree on exactly what was said or done. But you can’t, so you end up stuck in a cycle of relitigation. Housing-policy discussions are like that. They descend into crushing bickering because even the basic facts are up for debate.”
Bingo again. It’s almost like these two writers have been reading the Vanguard over the last decade.
For Demas: “The most basic fact about the housing crisis is the supply shortage. Yet many people deny this reality.”
In general the experts agree on these points. As Demsas notes, “the fundamental point is that we need more homes near good jobs and schools, and that give people access to the communities and amenities that make life more enjoyable.”
This isn’t rocket science—right?
And yet, it sort of seems like it. I keep recalling having this conversation with Davis Councilmember Will Arnold. He’s mentioned it to me several times that he hearkens back to the water supply campaign from 2013. At the time, all of the experts suggested that the city needed to have a new water supply. But citizens—a sizable minority—simply ignored the expert analysis and came to their own conclusions.
Arnold told me he couldn’t fathom people ignoring experts. And yet, that has become a harbinger for the contemporary political landscape. And it is not just happening in under-educated communities or red states, it is happening in well-educated Davis.
Demsas calls this “shortage denialism” or “supply skepticism.”
She cites research “looking at San Francisco, New York, Boston, and 52,000 residents across 12 U.S. metropolitan areas have all found that new housing brings down prices.”
She cites another new study from a trio of professors at the University of California (Clayton Nall, Chris Elmendorf, and Stan Oklobdzija) reveals that shortage denialism is not the only missing “shared fact” plaguing housing discourse.
Those reserachers found that between 30 to 40 percent of Americans believe, “contrary to basic economic theory and robust empirical evidence,” that if a lot of new housing were built in their region, then rents and home prices would rise. This posture is referred to as “supply skepticism.”
Demsas writes: “Shortage denialism, which I have observed in my own reporting, and supply skepticism, which these researchers revealed through their survey data, are related phenomena. Not only are they false, but they are false in the same direction. They push against the actual solution to the housing crisis: building enough homes. After all, if there is no shortage or if building new homes doesn’t reduce rents, then no one has to tackle NIMBYism, no one has to work to bring down housing-construction costs, and no one needs to build millions of new homes in America’s cities and suburbs. In fact, this magical thinking goes, we can fix our housing crisis without changing much of anything at all.”
There are those who believe we can’t solve the problem through market rate housing of course. We need to be able to build a huge amount of subsidized affordable housing. I’m not opposed to a solution that creates more big “A” affordable housing but we have to acknowledge at some point that we need more housing and if the solution is affordable housing, then find ways to finance it and subsidize it.
But in the end, reading these two articles once again convinces me that Davis is not an anamoly, it is an extreme case study of a much broader phenomenon and the arguments we have are not unique either—they are being thrown out there nationally in response to the housing crisis that too many people simply do not want to solve, and that is to the detriment of those living on the margins and even many who aren’t.