Pro-Housing Movement Grows
The paperback edition of Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America? was released two years ago this week.. How did my housing predictions in the 2020 preface turn out? Overall, not bad.
My big picture assessed whether America’s “progressive,” blue cities would finally adopt land use policies consistent with their values. The book provides a roadmap to achieving this goal. At the time it was a rare progressive voice challenging “progressive” urban housing policies, a critique that is now a common national theme (for example, see Ezra Klein—“How Blue Cities Became So Outrageously Unaffordable,” July 2021 NY Times).
Here’s what I got right and wrong about today’s cities.
What I Got Right
The End of Exclusionary Zoning
I predicted “exclusionary single family zoning will end or be sharply restricted in most cities with high housing costs.” Major progress has been made.
When my hardback came out I was accused by some progressive housing advocates as having an “obsession” with zoning reform. Now national progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders all favor ending exclusionary zoning.
California, Oregon, Minneapolis, Cambridge, Portland, Berkeley, Culver City have all ended exclusionary single family zoning. Other cities have as well. New York City now supports rezoning affluent neighborhoods to promote affordable housing, a move few thought possible only a few years ago (thank you Open New York).
Resistance remains but it is clear that single-family zoned neighborhoods in progressive “blue” cities will steadily decrease.
Cities Recognize Need to Build More Housing
The connection between cities not building enough housing to meet job and population growth and rising unaffordability is now accepted wisdom. Longtime NIMBYs are on the defensive. Some progressives still equate all new market rate building as “luxury” housing— my book cites a study showing San Francisco’s real “luxury” housing is its existing supply—but the tide has turned.
The outcome of San Francisco’s April 19 Assembly race between Matt Haney and David Campos will send a national message on whether blue cities now support building more housing for all income levels. The election is in a district renowned for opposing new market rate housing. Matt Haney has gone all in on backing housing production; Campos opposed the 495 unit project in SOMA and has a long record of opposing new market rate development.
The outcome will be telling.
Housing Policy is Climate Policy
I predicted that people would increasingly recognize that housing policy is climate policy. I thought my prediction was clearly correct when the COVID 19 shutdown highlighted the clear blue skies in Los Angeles without long car commutes. But we still have most Los Angeles politicians opposing land use reform. And “blue” cities like Portland are still backing freeway widening. So while arguments connecting housing policies to climate change are more commonly heard, I expected more progress by now.
Electing Pro-Housing Politicians
I saw electing pro-housing politicians as essential for increasing affordability. This has proved true time and again. Cambridge, Berkeley, Portland, and Culver City saw pro-housing politicians make a huge difference; Boulder’s most recent election will hopefully do the same.
Seattle proved me right both in a 2019 council and 2021 mayoral election where victories by status quo candidates have halted necessary land use reforms. My book describes how Seattle was decades ahead of other cities in supporting infill housing and upzoning; the city’s recent election results will slow this progress.
A More Progressive YIMBY Movement
My book gave the first national attention to many local YIMBYs and promoted the emerging YIMBY movement. I predicted that the YIMBY movement would become more progressive and more supportive of affordable housing and tenant protections.
I was right.
YIMBYs in Cambridge enacted the 100% Affordable Housing Overlay (thanks A Better Cambridge). YIMBYs in Berkeley and Culver City have backed strong tenant protections along with affordable housing and zoning reform. Groups like Abundant Housing LA and Abundant Housing MA regularly support tenants, the unhoused, and affordable housing. YIMBY Action and other groups across California have endorsed AB 2050, a bill that stops speculator evictions under the Ellis Act. They are also strongly backing Alex Lee’s pathbreaking social housing legislation, AB 2053.
The YIMBY movement has expanded far beyond its libertarian roots. While a libertarian streak remains among some YIMBYs—and some smaller YIMBY groups—most official YIMBY organizations are strongly progressive on housing and tenant issues.
What I Got Wrong
An Urgent Response to the Housing Emergency
I thought blue cities would finally start treating the affordability crisis as a true emergency. Not just declaring an emergency, like San Francisco did as far back as 1979, but taking urgent steps to build a lot more housing and better protect tenants.
Many cities have made progress on tenant protections (for example, St. Paul, Minnesota enacted rent control and just cause eviction by initiative and Minneapolis voters opened the door to similar laws). But cities like Austin, Denver, Los Angeles and San Francisco have made disappointingly little progress removing barriers to new housing (Austin’s rezoning was thrown out by a bad court decision and now the pro-reform council majority is gone).
The pandemic understandably shifted public focus away from non-health related problems. It also temporarily reduced housing demand and rent increases (though home prices have gone through the stratosphere due to lack of supply). COVID also spawned what turned out to be largely false narratives of urban residents fleeing cities, supposedly reducing housing demand.
But long car commutes have returned along with rising rents. And while there are a lot of promising plans, cities and states are not moving fast enought to eliminate the barriers to new housing.
One political leader is treating the housing crisis as a true emergency: President Biden. Biden’s Build Back Better proposal finally provided the federal resources necessary to end widespread homelessness. The bill would have dramatically increased those receiving federal housing assistance. Tragically, the bill did not pass (though the housing portions are still alive for a potential future bill).
Upzoning Remains Limited
None of the cities or states that have ended exclusionary single-family zoning have upzoned to allow five to eight story market rate apartment buildings on transit corridors. The type of visionary measure San Francisco’s Scott Wiener tried to pass with SB50. Duplexes, fourplexes and even eightplexes have been legalized but in the big picture that’s not going to produce the housing supply cities need.
I did not foresee the housing affordability crisis ending soon. But urban America needs to act with more urgency on dealing with this crisis. The goal should be to have no more books written about the affordability crisis because it has disappeared.