For much of the past two de­cades, the ques­tion of how to re­solve America’s acute short­age of af­ford­a­ble hous­ing has been strik­ing­ly ab­sent from the dom­i­nant na­tion­al dis­course.

Even af­ter a tril­lion dol­lars in bad mort­gages near­ly blew up the na­tion’s fi­nan­cial system, pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates in the 2012 and 2016 elec­tions did not re­lease de­tailed hous­ing plans. The fact that America’s ur­ban land­scape was under­going a rad­i­cal shift — in which mil­lions of young and mid­dle-class Ameri­cans were be­ing priced out of large cit­ies be­cause of run­a­way hous­ing prices — was still over­shad­owed by more im­me­di­ate con­cerns, like ris­ing health care costs and the loss of fac­to­ry jobs.

That changed a­brupt­ly over the past year, as the con­se­quences of the na­tion’s af­ford­a­ble hous­ing cri­sis be­came too visible to ignore. Rents had jumped so high in some cit­ies that teach­ers, fire­fight­ers and school­teach­ers could no long­er af­ford to live near their work. Large home­less camps were sprout­ing up near the centers of once-af­ford­a­ble cit­ies, from Aus­tin, Texas, to Min­ne­ap­olis to Seattle. Sud­den­ly, hous­ing was on the na­tion­al a­gen­da.

Any­one seek­ing a po­lit­i­cal rem­edy to the hous­ing prob­lem would do well to read Con­or Dougherty’s “Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America,” a pains­tak­ing­ly re­searched and pen­etrat­ing an­aly­sis of the eco­nom­ic and po­lit­i­cal for­ces behind America’s most dys­func­tion­al hous­ing mar­ket: San Francisco. Dougherty trac­es the dire scar­ci­ty of af­ford­a­ble hous­ing to warped poli­cies dat­ing back to World War II, as well as to ex­clu­sion­ist or­di­nanc­es close­ly inter­twined with America’s ob­ses­sion with sin­gle-fam­i­ly homeownership.

Dougherty, an eco­nom­ics re­port­er at the New York Times, makes a persuasive case that America’s af­ford­a­ble hous­ing short­age can­not be ex­plained by mar­ket for­ces alone; rath­er it is, at its core, a prob­lem of pol­i­tics and pow­er. A ma­jor cul­prit is the wide­spread use of ex­clu­sion­ar­y zon­ing — local gov­ern­ment or­di­nanc­es that de­sig­nate en­tire com­mu­ni­ties sole­ly for those who can af­ford sin­gle-fam­i­ly homes, of­ten with min­i­mum lot sizes.

The local re­stric­tions have con­spired to lim­it the sup­ply of hous­ing in large cit­ies — the very places where jobs and eco­nom­ic op­por­tu­ni­ty have be­come in­creas­ing­ly con­cen­trated, Dougherty writes.

The re­sults are soaring rents and an unconscionable housing gap: In America’s cit­ies, there are only 37 af­ford­a­ble a­part­ment units for every 100 low-in­come rent­ers. Be­tween 2011 and 2017, near­ly 4 mil­lion low-cost units that rent for un­der $800 a month have van­ished from the na­tion’s hous­ing stock, ac­cord­ing to an annual re­port by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Har­vard University.

These nation­wide trends have been mag­ni­fied in Cali­for­nia — where anti-growth move­ments and “Not-in-my-back­yard” (NIMBY) ac­tiv­ism have been a fix­ture of the po­lit­i­cal land­scape since the 1970s. But Dougherty avoids the tendency, common in books about economic hardship, to portray people as passive victims of forces beyond their control. Instead, he provides us with richly layered portraits of people seeking, in different ways, to correct the injustices caused by ruthless speculation and exclusionary housing policies. They include a young math teacher so frustrated by sky-high rents that she builds a national movement of pro-housing agitators, known as YIMBY (Yes-in-my-backyard); a Catholic nun who battles real estate speculators; and a city manager who quits his job rather than continue to support exclusionary zoning measures.

Dougherty does not shy away from the complexity of his subject matter, and he illuminates the many contradictions of national and local housing policies. Lost in the debate on rent control, for instance, is the recognition that America has long sought to protect homeowners from wild swings in housing prices by subsidizing fixed-rate mortgages. Rent control, he notes, is little more than an attempt by tenants to get the same kind of protections as homeowners.

Ultimately, Dougherty concludes, “There’s no way to rectify a housing shortage other than to build housing, and there’s no way to take care of people whom the private market won’t take care of other than subsidies or rent control, or both. The details are democracy.”

Golden Gates
By: Conor Dougherty.
Publisher: Penguin Press, 269 pages, $28.
Event: 7 p.m. March 25, Magers & Quinn Booksellers, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.