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