A promising new coalition looks to rewrite the politics of urban housing

An innovative new political coalition in Washington, DC, is trying to remap the contours of the urban housing debate by uniting poverty advocates, real estate developers, affordable housing proprietors, and urbanists under the banner of more construction. The idea is that by banding together, such a diverse coalition can defeat the blocking power of change-averse incumbent homeowners. This would free them up to stop fighting among themselves for scraps and start sharing the wealth that DC and other coastal cities can easily create by changing their approach to land use.

The specific occasion for the coalition is a scheduled rewrite of the city’s comprehensive plan, a guiding document that influences the decisions of city agencies — and most of all the Zoning Commission — in deciding what should be built and where.

But the underlying principle is applicable to a wide range of cities and political decisions. DC, like most expensive central cities and their suburbs, currently takes a fundamentally defensive approach to land use aiming to “protect” the most affluent and expensive areas from change. That leaves for-profit developers of market rate housing and builders and custodians of subsidized affordable housing locked in a zero-sum struggle for scarce buildable land, while leaving city governments straining under the budgetary cost of providing subsidies for those in need.

An alternative approach emphasizes the benefits of market-rate construction and the reality that allowing more of it in the places where land price is highest can reduce displacement, create new funding streams for subsidized housing, and ultimately provide the fuel for a more inclusive city.

A new coalition beyond YIMBY

Around the country, various YIMBY groups — a play on the old acronym NIMBY for Not in My Back Yard — have sprung up to advocate for more density and more market-rate housing development in expensive cities, backing candidates for local office and having some influence over state-level initiatives in California. YIMBYism has even gone mainstream enough to have its own conferences.

But even as YIMBYs are, in their way, obsessed with the price of housing, they’ve had relatively little success engaging the longstanding “affordable housing” communities that exist in American cities. Affordable housing advocates and especially those who build and maintain “affordable” developments are dealing with a population that is simply too poor to afford anything that would get built under anything resembling current market prices. Changing land use rules to allow for more construction would, in some sense, increase affordability in almost any expensive city. But it wouldn’t necessarily do anything to address the specific needs of the affordable housing population.

That’s what’s different about the new coalition, which united YIMBY urbanists like the Coalition for Smarter Growth and Greater Greater Washington with affordable housing groups like the All Souls Housing Corporation and the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development. Cementing the deal are several of the city’s big real estate development groups (EYA, Midatlantic Realty Partners), broad anti-poverty groups (Bread for the City), and the wonks at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute.

The basic glue holding it together is that what affordable housing groups really need is resources — land, money, and buildings that can accommodate a population in need of subsidy. And rather than fight with the market rate developers for a small amount of resources in a handful of greenfield or ex-industrial locations, they could team up to push for an expansion in the overall amount of building allowed.

A comprehensive plan that says yes

Perhaps the single most conceptually significant proposed change to the comprehensive plan concerns the drab-sounding Framework Element 218.3, which serves as an overall thesis statement for how the city looks at the relationship between development and affordability. It currently states that “the recent housing boom has triggered a crisis of affordability in the city, creating a hardship for many District residents and changing the character of neighborhoods.”

This perfectly captures the mentality of a defensive planning process and the kind of political coalition that dominates most coastal cities. The basic framework is that residents in affluent neighborhoods get to say no to new development (thus preventing the dread changing of neighborhood character), and in exchange, residents of poorer neighborhoods get to hope that blocking new market rate development will stop gentrifiers from moving in.

The proposed change inverts cause and effect, arguing that “[t]he recent housing boom is the consequence of rising demand. That demand has contributed to a crisis of affordability in the city, creating a hardship for many District residents and changing the character of neighborhoods.”

Prices rise, in other words, because of demand. And the question for a planning document is not how to prevent that demand from changing the city, but how to channel that demand in a constructive way that builds an inclusive city.

As David Whitehead, Greater Greater Washington’s top housing organizer, puts it, their vision for a new plan entails “reprioritizing the creation and preservation of affordable housing, and strengthening protections of lower-income tenants,” but doing so in the context of increasing the overall amount of homebuilding. The proposals go line by line through the existing comprehensive plan, attempting to strike defensive or exclusionary language in favor of welcoming new construction conditional on a degree of inclusiveness.

Big gains if someone wants them

The political impediments to persuading entrenched upper-middle-class homeowners to embrace any kind of change are large.

But the key to the emergence of new coalitions for change is the recognition that the possible gains from change are also very large. An eye-popping 2015 study by Chang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Moretti concludes that constraints on construction in expensive metropolitan areas “lowered aggregate US growth by more than 50% from 1964 to 2009.” A separate paper of theirs concludes that getting the most constrained metro areas to relax their regulations not all the way, but simply to be as tight as the average American metro area, could grow the overall size of the economy by about 9.5 percent.

What’s particularly striking is that though these possible national gains are large, the economic gains to the specific high-demand metropolitan areas themselves would be even higher, since much of the increase in economic activity would be localized there.

Some of the extra economic potential generated would, naturally, need to go to expanding infrastructure and basic utilities to accommodate the additional people. But broadly speaking, increased development for high demand cities should open up vast new fiscal and economic horizons that can be used to finance subsidized housing or just about anything else the local community needs.

Decades ago, sociologists John Logan and Harvey Molotch theorized that for this reason, urban politics would be dominated by “growth machine” coalitions that united developers who wanted to build with politicians, who wanted to hand out goodies to their constituents. In practice, that hasn’t happened, and many cities greatly strangle growth, finding themselves locked in a politics of housing scarcity and budget austerity. But the logic of the growth machine is strong and in many ways compelling — if organizers can do the practical work needed to put the coalition in place.

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