A post at Trulia called “Blue Markets Face Bigger Housing Challenges Than Red Markets” has been generating interest in media outlets typically read by blue voters, like The Atlantic and the Washington Post. The Post even considers itself “startled” by the connection between cities with liberal politics and higher housing prices:
Between these two poles, though (metro San Francisco voted for Obama by 58 points, metro Knoxville for Romney by 34 points), the relationship between housing affordability and politics across the country is startlingly strong.
But for those of us following the ongoing struggle to deal with rising housing costs in the city, this isn’t startling at all; in fact it makes perfect sense. As Megan McArdle points out in her take on the Trulia data, density (more people living in a smaller area) tends to bother people who already live in a city. Those that got there first are tempted to close the door behind them.
Density also multiplies the frictions over things such as noise, pets, public amenities and so forth that people have to put up with. Which increases the pressure for a resolution via the law…Consider, too, that the liberal base is composed of a large number of small interest groups with a long and successful history of lobbying government for laws. Those groups have paid a lot of attention to enabling this sort of action, making sure that their local political institutions have lots of avenues by which small groups can affect the legislative process. Everything has extensive community review, and it’s easy for local groups to file lawsuits that block some undesirable project.
Strategy and tactics in liberal politics was born out of organizing the mass movement, getting bodies into rooms where decisions are being made and using the pressure of large numbers of people, and when necessary, law suits to win. What happens in cities where there are lots of liberals is that when it comes time to grow the population, and things change and maybe get uncomfortable, the resolution is to organize for restrictions on the development and construction of new housing, policies that raise rents. And oddly, this means using the tactics pioneered by Saul Alinsky not to push for more building and more housing choice for renters and new people, but less by erecting more rules, taxes, and fees. Red and Blue Chart What’s ironic is that the more liberal cities agitate about the cost of housing, the more rules, fees, and taxes they propose. I’ve called this dynamic the “San Francisco Death Spiral,” a pattern of pressure by existing residents to make more rules on new housing because new housing is too expensive which results in higher prices and thus more agitation. The claims about gentrification and income inequality that seem to beleaguer bigger, liberal cities also are used to support the arguments for more limits on market rate housing and taxes on it to “solve” the housing problem. What’s encouraging about the Trulia data and graphics is that perhaps it will cause some soul searching among elected officials in liberal cities. Maybe those leaders might at least consider the idea that raising costs and limiting supply really do contribute negatively to housing prices. What’s needed in liberal cities is an economic and ideological reset: you can support taxes and regulation and government spending to solve social problems and also support the idea that sometimes reducing some or all of those things can solve social problems too. As liberal cities grow because they are progressive, open, and support diverse lifestyles, maybe their housing policies can be open and progressive too.