Commentary: Kahlenberg’s Column Points the Finger at Liberal Hypocrisy on Housing in Place Just Like Davis

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By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Richard Kahlenberg in his article in the Atlantic this week wrote about the suburb of Scarsdale, located in Westchester County, a suburb of New York.  From the description he could have been writing about Davis.

He noted that Scarsdale, one of the country’s wealthiest communities, also is strongly liberal.  For instance, in 2020, three-quarters of Scarsdale voters voted for Joe Biden over Donald Trump.

“One can safely presume that few Scarsdale residents are ardent backers of Trump’s wall on the Mexican border,” writes Kahlenberg.  At the same time, “But many of them support a less visible kind of wall, erected by zoning regulations that ban multifamily housing and keep non-wealthy people, many of them people of color, out of their community.”

Sound familiar?  I’ve heard Measure J in Davis described as an urban limit line, but perhaps a border wall is a more apt metaphor.

Indeed, writes Kahlenberg, “Across the country, a lot of good white liberals, people who purchase copies of White Fragility and decry the U.S. Supreme Court for ending affirmative action, sleep every night in exclusive suburbs that socially engineer economic (and thereby racial) segregation by government edict.”

Those of you who have been reading the Vanguard since the start—July 30, 2006—will note that this is a theme I have returned to again and again and again.  In my original conception, I referred to it as the “dark underbelly of the People’s Republic of Davis.”

At the time, I was referring to the fact that erstwhile liberals and progressives on national issues stuck their collective heads in the sand when it came to issues like racism and racial profiling by the police.

Many of the people who proudly and vocally supported the nation’s first Black President two years later were noticeably silent when it came to inequalities in their own backyard.

In those days, before I read The Color of Law I may not have connected land use policies to inequality, but the shoe definitely fits.

Following Rothstein’s thesis, Kahlenberg notes, “The huge inequalities between upscale municipalities and their poorer neighbors didn’t just happen; they are in large measure the product of laws that are hard to square with the inclusive In This House, We Believe signs on lawns in many highly educated, deep-blue suburbs.”

While Davis can be compared with nearby Woodland and West Sacramento in terms of growth policies and demographics, Kahelenberg compares Scarsdale with Port Chester, eight miles away but another world.

He notes, “Scarsdale’s median household income, in excess of $250,000, is nearly three times that of Port Chester, as is the portion of residents with a college degree. And whereas three-quarters of Port Chester’s elementary students qualify for free or reduced-price meals at school, zero percent of Scarsdale’s students do. In Scarsdale, 87 percent of residents are non-Hispanic white or Asian American, whereas 69 percent of Port Chester residents are Black or Hispanic.”

Kahlenberg has a book, Excluded: How Snob Zoning, NIMBYism, and Class Bias Build the Walls We Don’t See, and here he notes that “low-wage single mothers from across the country repeatedly expressed their desire for better schools for their children.”

I like the fact that Kahelnberg focuses so heavily on access to education.  In the last five years, I have argued that Davis growth policies are potentially permanently straining and damaging our schools.  By pricing most middle class parents out of the market, we are creating a situation where we face long term declining enrollment which will strip our district, slowly but steadily, of resources and funding.

Writing from a Davis perspective, I have focused on that side of the coin.  But Kahlenberg focuses on the flipside—access to education.

He noted the staggering achievement gap between students at Chester versus Scarsdale.

Writes Kahlenberg: “Television cameras help depict the plight of immigrant families who are turned away at the border, but they don’t capture the way working-class families in places like Port Chester are shut out of higher-opportunity public schools in places like Scarsdale that prohibit the construction of the types of homes that less advantaged families could afford.”

He adds, “Although Scarsdale parents may try to reconcile the exclusion with their political liberalism by supporting greater state education spending in places like Port Chester, economic integration of schools has been found to be far more effective than a “separate but equal” compensatory-spending approach to equity.”

This is a point that is not focused on much here.  It will undoubtedly appeal to the core Davis voter less than perhaps the argument about declining enrollment, but it’s nevertheless an important point to consider from the standpoint of equity.

Kahlenberg noted, “By limiting housing supply, Scarsdale’s zoning laws—and similar rules in other New York City suburbs—also artificially drive up home prices in the metropolitan region.”

Interestingly he added that “yes-in-my-backyard reforms have gained traction in states such as California and Oregon and in cities such as Minneapolis and Charlotte” but lamented that “the liberal New York State legislature deep-sixed a moderate Democratic governor’s housing agenda—with the help of elected officials and civic leaders from affluent liberal suburbs.”

While it’s true California has put through some modest reforms, most have not been gamechangers.  And those state reforms are running into local resistance in many of the very places that Kahlenberg is talking about—wealthy but liberal enclaves not just in Davis, but around the Bay Area and elsewhere.

As Kahlenberg argues, “Wealthy conservative areas also erect barriers to new housing, but liberal areas are typically worse.”

Writing in 2022, the Brookings Institution researcher Jenny Schuetz observed that “decades of painstaking research of zoning by economists and urban planners have produced a high degree of consensus on which places in the United States have tight land use regulations, regardless of the method used to measure zoning.”

She argues that “overly restrictive zoning is most prevalent and problematic along the West Coast and the Northeast corridor from Washington D.C. to Boston.” These areas “lean heavily Democratic in national, state and local elections.”

Kahlenberg notes, “And studies that examine the stringency of zoning within states—for example, California—find that the most restrictive zoning is found in the more politically liberal communities.”

Hey, if the shoe fits… we at least need to own up to it.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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18 Comments

      1. Richard McCann

        I started calling them “Regressives” two decades ago when I realized that their actions were inhibiting social justice by trying to protect their privileges as homeowners in Davis. They only use progressive terminology as a façade for their real selfish agenda.

  1. Ron Glick

    “I’ve heard Measure J in Davis described as an urban limit line, but perhaps a border wall is a more apt metaphor.”

    Isn’t that the same Measure J that you have always supported?

  2. Ron Glick

    My favorite line in the Atlantic story was from the elected official who complained that addressing the problem “Would change the complexity of our community.”

    A malapropism if I ever heard one. Change the word  complexity to complexion and a greater truth is revealed.

     

  3. Ron Oertel

    Indeed, writes Kahlenberg, “Across the country, a lot of good white liberals, people who purchase copies of White Fragility and decry the U.S. Supreme Court for ending affirmative action, sleep every night in exclusive suburbs that socially engineer economic (and thereby racial) segregation by government edict.”

    Apparently, I’m not a “good” white liberal.  I might not even be a “liberal” at all – certainly less than I once was.  Though truth be told, most people don’t fall into one category or another. 

    For sure, I’m not interested in reading racist propaganda, nor do I support racial quotas which would primarily harm Asians (within the academic system, at least).

    “Good” liberals might, however, tend to support rent control.  They also tend to oppose housing developments which are limited to those “connected to Davis”, and they understand the connection regarding the pursuit of jobs/economic development and how that impacts housing demand. They also understand that continuous growth and development in a finite world that is also experiencing climate change is not sustainable.

    (Not so much the “bad” liberals.)

    In the last five years, I have argued that Davis growth policies are potentially permanently straining and damaging our schools.  By pricing most middle class parents out of the market, we are creating a situation where we face long term declining enrollment which will strip our district, slowly but steadily, of resources and funding.

    You already know what I’ll say about that.

  4. Hiram Jackson

    I appreciate points made in Kahlenberg’s essay and think that there are lessons to learn for Davis.  However schools in Scarsdale, NY are at a different level from Davis schools with respect to demographics (DJUSD is more diverse) and per student spending (Scarsdale spends much more).

    1. Ron Oertel

      I’ll go ahead and “categorize” this, in the spirit of the article:

      However schools in Scarsdale, NY are at a different level from Davis schools with respect to demographics (DJUSD is more diverse)

      In this case, DJUSD is a “good liberal”, compared to Scarsdale.

      and per student spending (Scarsdale spends much more).

      But here, Scarsdale is the “better liberal”.

      So what we have is a “tie”. Each has one strike against it, and one point for it.

      Is there going to be a “tiebreaker”?

      1. Hiram Jackson

        While Scarsdale schools report 0% of its students on free/reduced lunch, DJUSD is around 20%.  DJUSD is also at less than 50% students identifying as white/non-Latino.  DJUSD funds its schools on a per-student basis at roughly the same level as any other district (Winters, Woodland, Esparto, Washington Unified) in Yolo County.

        Also, median income of Scarsdale is three times that of Davis.

        The fact that Davis is a college town hosting a public university tends to allow a way for lower income families to live in Davis within the student economy. Lower income housing options could be improved, though.

        1. Richard McCann

          Hiram

          While DJUSD has a higher non-white percentage, much of that is Asian. Those families have income and wealth comparable to white families. Also the presence of UCD injects a substantial boost in average parental education which is at least as important as household income to student success. Government spending per student explains only about a quarter of student success.

          While in theory this advantage from the presence of UCD should allow lower income households to send their children to DJUSD, the growth control of Measure J/R/D and other impediments to in-town development constrain prices, which leads to a 55% price premium over the average of the neighboring 4 cities in Yolo and Solano.  Commuters have the wealth and students higher occupancy rates to squeeze those families out. So we’ve effectively closed them out anyway.

          So I don’t think we’re so distinct from Scarsdale.

        2. Richard McCann

          Most of the non-white households in Davis are Asian which on average have income and wealth near those of white ones. The presence of UCD provides the offsetting parental education level that offsets the income difference, but spending levels explain only 25% of student success with parental and community traits explaining the rest.

          However, our growth control actions in Measure J/R/D and objections to infill projects has constrained housing supply that prices low income families out. The Davis premium is 55% compared to neighboring Yolo/Solano cities. Commuters with more wealth and students with higher paying occupancy rates outbid those families. We just use a different mechanism to keep those families out.

          So we’re not so different from Scarsdale.

        3. Ron Oertel

          The Davis premium is 55% compared to neighboring Yolo/Solano cities. Commuters with more wealth and students with higher paying occupancy rates outbid those families. We just use a different mechanism to keep those families out.

          Again, that’s not the premium, you can’t lump-together “neighboring cities” in this manner in the first place, and the premium existed even before Measure J was enacted.

          For that matter, there’s a difference in “premium” even within Davis itself (e.g., for housing that’s closest to UCD).

          Put forth some numbers regarding how much prices would drop by building “X” numbers of houses outside of Davis’ boundaries. And since there’s a difference even within Davis itself, you’ll need to do this by neighborhood.

        4. Hiram Jackson

          Richard McCann: ‘While DJUSD has a higher non-white percentage, much of that is Asian.’

          I think we have to agree to disagree on this statement.  I find data that shows DJUSD has 23% Latino-identifying students, a number that has been growing by .5% to 1% annually.  If that trend continues, then in 10-15 years Latino-identifying students would make up close to a third of DJUSD students.  At present 15.6% identify as Asian, a number that has held relatively steady over the past several years.

          I also think it’s important to remember that Latino-identifying students don’t automatically mean low socio-economic status.  Many come from families who may work at UC Davis or in downtown Sacramento.  I think one can infer that an increasing percentage of Latino-identifying DJUSD students represents a growing middle-, even upper middle-class portion.

           

          I definitely agree that housing prices constrain who chooses to live here, but if we document that ~20% of DJUSD students are low income (as defined by free/reduced lunch program participation), then where do you think they are living? 

           

          I think they would less likely be Davis homeowners.  Anecdotally over the years, I have found such families living in apartments that might also have UCD students as neighbors, or in other equivalent rental units.  As far as I know, there is no data that tracks what kind of housing DJUSD students have.  That ~20% number has been relatively steady in Davis since 2010.

          Also, although a university attracts employees with higher education levels, and many of our local school district measures reflect that, they also require  employees who may not necessarily have high levels of academic education (graduate degrees), such as custodial staff, grounds maintenance, building repair/maintenance, cafeteria/kitchen staff, and maybe other categories I’m not thinking of at the moment.  Here and there students maybe hired, but I think there are plenty of non-students in these positions.  They also make up the local economy.

          I don’t disagree that Davis has similarities to Scarsdale as described in this blog post, but on paper (I’ve never visited Scarsdale) I find Scarsdale to represent a greater extreme of affluence than exists in Davis.

  5. Ron Oertel

    How “sad” it is, that some young folks can’t afford Tahoe.  Really feel bad for them, as it seems like a “right” for everyone to live wherever they want to, and that prices should be the same everywhere.  And that you should be able to do so right away (e.g., when first starting out in a career). In an area that has limited “professional” careers in the first place.

    “That was a major concern in Truckee,” Ryan told SFGATE. “If we spend all this money to get into a house and then we have a kid and we get evicted, what’s that going to look like?

    It would like you’re a young couple living in a desirable area that you (and many, many others – including those much older and more established than you) can’t afford, working at jobs that don’t pay enough, have no savings, already supporting two dogs, and now want to have a kid on top of that.

    And that it would then be a complete mystery, regarding “how” someone in that position might not be able to afford rent.  (Probably due to some mean landlord – that’s the cause.)

    But as far as what the actual eviction “looks like”, I would think that you’d have a general idea, already. If not, give it a try and “see” what it “looks like” – if you’re really that curious. (I’d suggest giving it a “trial run” BEFORE having the kid, but unfortunately – that’s up to you.)

    And once you start factoring in child care, with there being no affordable options in the Truckee area, well, what are we going to do?”

    Well, my first suggestion would be to stop assuming that others should pay for kids that you don’t even have, yet. I dunno, but it seems like this is something you might want to “plan” for yourself (in regard to the expense), in advance.

    And according to Kind, the Mountain Housing Council’s latest survey showed a decrease in the number of respondents who lived outside of Tahoe but considered themselves “likely to move back.”

    Good news for Tahoe, at least.

    https://www.sfgate.com/renotahoe/article/lake-tahoe-locals-cost-of-living-18256593.php

    1. Ron Oertel

      what’s that going to look like?

      Well, to me (and probably a lot of other people who wouldn’t even think of trying to “make it” as someone starting out in an area like Tahoe – even 40 years ago), it’s going to look like the “result” of a feeling of entitlement.

      Now, I do realize that the article itself doesn’t want me to “see it” that way. (So I assume that the author of that article also experiences a feeling of “entitlement”.)

      I’ll leave it to others, regarding whether or not this belief is the result of being a “good” white liberal, or a “bad” white liberal. (It appears that everyone in the article is “white”, so that at least is probably not in question.)

  6. Richard McCann

    Ron O

    As usual you’ve demonstrated a lack of a basic understanding of how markets work. Constraining supply through direct government policies will lead to higher prices, no ifs, ands or buts. Those artificially higher prices close out lower income households and inhibits their children from attending the schools in our community.  You also don’t understand how the combination of relaxing housing constraints and bringing jobs into town can make for a more balanced jobs/housing mix.

    You’ve presented no evidence on 1) that DJUSD is explicitly diverting students from other districts and 2) how DJUSD can maintain fiscal balance and student success with a smaller district. Nor have you presented a strategy of how DJUSD can close neighborhood schools given the successful community objections to closing 2 of 3 proposed schools (and the third being converted to a campus serving different student populations.) All of your assertions are unsubstantiated speculation.

    As for paying for student education, those students are the future workers who will produce the goods and services that will pay for everyone’s retirement. Retirement funds aren’t just an inert pile of gold–they all rely on continued economic output and vitality from those future workers. So we pay for those students out of our own collective self interest. Stupidity would have us leave it entirely to parents to finance their children’s education.

    You are the illustration of the contradictions highlighted in the Atlantic article. You profess supporting rent control but then you object to any relaxation of growth controls in the community that neighbors yours that would lead to deflating housing prices and rents in that community. You claim to be concerned about racism, but then reveal its really relies on the false premise that we can be color blind in our current culture. You might be concerned about climate change (although I can’t really tell) but then believe that policies that encourage commuting and emitting GHGs is a better response than bringing workers closer to their jobs.

     

    1. Ron Oertel

      As usual you’ve demonstrated a lack of a basic understanding of how markets work.

      I understand it as well as you do.  The difference between me and you is that I put forth honest observations.

      Constraining supply through direct government policies will lead to higher prices, no ifs, ands or buts.

      All else being equal, that might be true.  But all else is not “equal”.  Factors include “creation” of demand (e.g., pursuit of more economic activity/jobs, attractiveness of alternatives in regard to both housing and jobs, etc.).

      Those artificially higher prices close out lower income households and inhibits their children from attending the schools in our community.

      So?  They can attend schools in their OWN community – how about that? 

      As it is, they’re already attending Davis schools, since Davis poaches kids from other districts (rather than “right-size” itself).

      You also don’t understand how the combination of relaxing housing constraints and bringing jobs into town can make for a more balanced jobs/housing mix.

      This comment has no meaning.  What are you talking about?

      You’ve presented no evidence on 1) that DJUSD is explicitly diverting students from other districts

      There’s more than 1,000 “out of district” students attending Davis schools.  How’s that for “evidence”?

      2) how DJUSD can maintain fiscal balance and student success with a smaller district.

      How are other (smaller) districts doing so?  Are you claiming that this can’t be done without maintaining quality?  I’m pretty sure that there’s other districts which may be BETTTER than DJUSD, while also being smaller.

      Nor have you presented a strategy of how DJUSD can close neighborhood schools given the successful community objections to closing

      You think a loud minority should be driving policy for the entire city?  Really?

      2 of 3 proposed schools (and the third being converted to a campus serving different student populations.)

      Don’t know what you’re referring to.

      All of your assertions are unsubstantiated speculation.

      You’re the one putting forth completely unsubstantiated speculation.

      As for paying for student education, those students are the future workers who will produce the goods and services that will pay for everyone’s retirement.

      Is that right?  Goods and services “pay for” retirement?  Since when?  Workers pay for their OWN retirement, from their paychecks.

      Retirement funds aren’t just an inert pile of gold–they all rely on continued economic output and vitality from those future workers. So we pay for those students out of our own collective self interest. Stupidity would have us leave it entirely to parents to finance their children’s education.

      Terrific – you want OTHERS to pay for other people’s kids – including those who can’t even do so while ALREADY being subsidized by others.

      You are the illustration of the contradictions highlighted in the Atlantic article. You profess supporting rent control but then you object to any relaxation of growth controls in the community that neighbors yours that would lead to deflating housing prices and rents in that community.

      What are you talking about?  Rent control does not lead to “deflating housing prices”.  It leads to stabilization of rent.

      You claim to be concerned about racism, but then reveal its really relies on the false premise that we can be color blind in our current culture.

      When did I say anything about being “color-blind”?  At this point, you’re so far off base in terms of anything I’ve said that I might as well be responding to someone who has schizophrenia.

      Where was YOUR concern, regarding the “Davis-connected buyer’s program” at WDAAC?

      You might be concerned about climate change (although I can’t really tell) but then believe that policies that encourage commuting and emitting GHGs is a better response than bringing workers closer to their jobs.

      If you were concerned about that, you’d be advocating for housing on campus (instead of outside of the boundaries of Davis).

       

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