First Principles for Housing Debates
Complaining about a housing crisis won’t make the crisis go away.
“Why are you so angry?” a friend asked me during a road trip across the southwest as we talked about the housing debate in the country. I’m still struggling for the answer, but I am frustrated that our national conversation about housing, like almost everything else in our lives, has become tribal and polarized.
The discussion isn’t about what Kevin Lynch called “legibility” in his iconic Image of the City, a book about the idea that we can both read and write cities, that we can learn the rules of what makes a good city and welcome the spontaneity of public engagement. Can our discussions and solutions embrace both? Can we acknowledge that housing prices are the result of supply and demand and have an efficient system of subsidies?
First, idealism and pragmatism are both dangerous. Having an ideal, a vision of “what should be,” can interfere with what is best in the moment, and pragmatism can start as an effort to solve immediate problems and end with “that’s just how it is.” When pressed, people can retreat to hardened positions, arguing that the answer is either one or the other, forgetting that regardless of the answer, we still have to do something.
Lynch’s five-piece typology of key ingredients to the built environment—landmarks, nodes, paths, edges, and districts—was phenomenology and anthropology, an effort to describe what Lynch observed repeatedly in functioning cities. But these representations of function and form went from an ideal to rote and calcified requirements to be imposed onto the built environment in a plan. In their celebration of Lynch’s 100th birthday, the Journal of the American Planning Association quotes Lynch himself on this eventuality:
It seemed to many planners that here was a new technique…that allowed a designer to predict the public image of any existing city or new proposal. For a time, plans were fashionably decked out with nodes and all the rest. There was no attempt to reach out to actual inhabitants, because that would waste time and be upsetting.
We’ve seen plazas in cities without people or streets with mandated commercial spaces without tenants. I wrote about South Lake Union in Seattle twelve years ago, pointing out that regulatory requirements intended to create bustling public spaces didn’t succeed in doing so.
In the years following this post, and before the pandemic, the plazas and public spaces did fill with people, largely because of the success of Amazon. But this happened because Amazon hired many people, which created customers for businesses that in turn needed retail space. As this unfolded, people who neither lived nor worked in the area went there as a destination, creating landmarks, nodes, paths, edges, and districts. This didn’t happen by legislative fiat or because of a plan. It happened because of more people moving in—something stiffly resisted by some because of resentment of Amazon’s wealth and by others who opposed change.
The resulting friction resulted in the birth of the organization I worked on for years, Seattle for Growth, a coalition of developers, builders, and housing providers who believed that for all the new people moving into Seattle for jobs, and those already here, the answer for upward pressures in housing prices was simple: building more housing. My group supported small-lot infill development in single-family neighborhoods, smaller apartments called “micro-housing,” and opposed efforts to restrict population density and housing in the busiest, fastest growing, and increasingly expensive neighborhoods.
The discussion became what I described, a fight over how to stop what people feared rather than allowing room for opportunity. Affordability became the lightning rod for the debate. All these new people, incumbent homeowners argued, were driving up the cost of housing. Others, concerned about justice and fairness, argued that the new people would push people, especially minorities, out of the city, making the city whiter.
That didn’t happen. Seattle over the years has become less white, and new growth actually helps existing neighborhoods with populations that are not predominantly white. Truth has a way of frustrating ideology, and that has had a tendency to harden rather than soften rigid approaches to addressing rising housing costs. What Seattle and other cities that experienced growth before the pandemic and now face uncertainty have done isn’t embrace new ideas, but rather urge zoning changes that sound good, but impose affordability requirements that ultimately increase the price for buyers and renters.
Lynch studied under Frank Lloyd Wright, who proposed Broadacre City, a hybrid of intense high-rise density and placid rural agricultural uses put together. The images he created of the city, with its transit lines converging on tall buildings surrounded by farmland, can evoke a suburban nightmare, or buttress a vision of efficient use of land with taller buildings while keeping surrounding land untouched or cultivated for food.
Either way, Wright was criticized. In his article, “Broadacre City—Ideal and Nemesis,” Anthony Alofsin said that critics found Wright’s vision a mashup of science fiction and adolescent idealism without reference to social forces, and not progressive or socialist enough. Wright argued back that Broadacre City wasn’t capitalist or socialist but intended to “supplant a political philosophy by championing ‘individual creativity.’”
Am I advocating for discussions about housing and cities to take place in some rarified intellectual playground absent of social forces and ideology with arguments settled by seventh grade math and basic economics? While that would be a relief, the answer is, “No.” But when the argument is left to concentration of political might versus plain logic, logic usually loses. When I’ve argued with socialists, I always point out that even if housing is a human right, we still have to build more of it so everyone has access to it; it’s called supply and demand, and it is a rule that applies in every possible world, even a worker’s paradise.
My anger and exhaustion at this point is less about lost ideals than it is about seeing more and more energy and money spent on a “housing crisis” as if repeating that term again and again in the glow of a pile of burning cash has some magical property to make the crisis go away. It doesn’t. We should allow the market to produce as much housing as possible, and where it fails, give people cash.
I was drawn into politics and policy by Robert Kennedy’s paraphrase of George Bernard Shaw: “Some men see things as they are and say, ‘Why,’ I dream things that never were and say, ‘Why not?’” Sometimes, we spend too much time asking, “Why?” and not enough asking, “Why not?”
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