The status quo isn’t neutral

EDIT: It occurs to me that I begin this post by saying that I read this thoughtful piece, and I then I try to tear apart one paragraph of it. Blogging encourages doing things like that, but it’s not a good tendency. I think there are, actually, a number of important ideas here: probably the biggest is that the world zoning deregulators are asking for really does look meaningfully different – and requires different assumptions about what a neighborhood is – than much of what we have today. Our side has to grapple with, and be honest about, that fact. We also have to be honest about just how much construction is necessary to make dents in places like San Francisco and New York; not just in the city, but the suburbs as well. And that for large parts of those kinds of metro areas, subsidies will be necessary, if you’re the kind of person who thinks that getting as close to equal access as possible is actually desirable. Good transportation can go a long way, of course, but it won’t do everything. That said, these arguments shouldn’t just be about SF and NYC – cities around the country use single-family zoning to protect wealthy enclaves and reduce access to jobs and amenities on the part of lower-income people. That reform is valuable, too.


Aaron Renn has a thoughtful response to the zoning deregulation crowd over at New Geography. There’s a fair amount in the piece, some of which I agree with, but I’d like to focus on this particular passage:

Steffan also says affordable housing is a social justice issue. Yet is it really social justice to require everyone to have equal access to San Francisco, population 825,000?  I think not. Especially not when America is replete with urban centers whose biggest problems are depopulation and worthless houses that you can’t give away. There are plenty of options of places for people to live; we should look at making our now failing cities more attractive to people who may like the housing and neighborhood, if not for issues such as crime and poor schools.

There are two things going on here. The first is the idea that no one has a “right” to live in elite urban centers like San Francisco, and so affordable housing in those places isn’t actually a social justice issue. Aaron Renn is definitely not the only person to lean on that kind of argument. And, strictly speaking, it may be true – I don’t know that “equal access” is a legal right; although equality of opportunity is, and to the extent that geographic exclusion means inequality of opportunity, it’s a problem.

But either way, applying this argument in favor of restrictive zoning is pretty ludicrous. After all, the reason that so many people can’t afford San Francisco isn’t because of the impartial workings of the market; it’s because the government is artificially inflating prices. If the government decided to impose supply restrictions on, say, milk, causing prices to go up to $20 a gallon, and people asked the government to stop doing that, it wouldn’t really make any sense to shrug your shoulders and say, “Well, not everyone has the right to drink milk.”

Or, more pointedly, it’s as if you lost a race because someone was holding onto your ankles the entire time, and when you complained they responded, “Well, somebody had to lose.” Yes, of course. But the game was rigged.

Moreover, this kind of argument assumes – without saying so – that residents of wealthy neighborhoods do have another kind of right: the right to expect that their neighborhoods will stay the same forever. They don’t. Nor do they have the right to dictate where or how other people live. There’s surely some legitimate interest in incrementalism, to prevent the perceived chaos of massive and ubiquitous projects in a previously low-rise, quiet area. But that suggests that government should allow steady, even growth, not quash it altogether.

The second idea in this passage is interesting, because I’ve also heard it from friends on the left who are skeptical about relying on private development to solve large parts of our housing crisis. What about, they say, the huge depopulated areas in Detroit, the South Side of Chicago, Philadelphia, the rest of the Rust Belt, and so on? What’s wrong with pushing people to live in those places?

There is a hint of sense in this – building more houses when we have these houses over there, sitting empty, isn’t ideal – but I don’t think it takes an awful lot of poking before it falls apart. If your plan to bring back economically devastated areas is to force lots of poor people to live there by denying them the option of living somewhere with, say, safe streets and decent schools, then…I’m not really sure what to say. That seems self-evidently like a disaster, both from a practical perspective – exactly what sort of renaissance do we expect to happen if we encourage lots of lower-income people to congregate in places that are already resource-starved, without an escape hatch? Has that ever worked out? – and from a moral one. Not to mention the legal one: remember, again, that the reason these areas are so expensive is because of government interfering in the market. The status quo isn’t neutrality; it’s a massive redistribution program to the wealthy from everyone else.

4 thoughts on “The status quo isn’t neutral

  1. That seems self-evidently like a disaster, both from a practical perspective – exactly what sort of renaissance do we expect to happen if we encourage lots of lower-income people to congregate in places that are already resource-starved, without an escape hatch? Has that ever worked out?

    Renn was arguing that we ought to try and make them more attractive, whatever that means. Given the libertarian bent of New Geography, that probably means more business-friendly regulations, lower wages, more energy extraction – The Texas Model, which in fairness does seem to generate a lot of jobs across a spread of income ranges. The problem is that not everybody can do it without undermining its effectiveness.

    1. Brett, you’re 100% correct about the New Geography and the Texas Model. However, I believe New Geography is decidedly not libertarian. They repeatedly favor social-planning when in favor of SFHs and auto infrastructure.

  2. A couple of thoughts.

    Renn is focused on the physical transformation of the city. However, the only constant is change. If we do not allow the physical space of the city to evolve, then the financial pressure will continue to mount. The physical spaces might remain the same, with buildings preserved over time, but with an entirely different class of people living there. We’ve already seen this in many cases, where the center of the city is so wealthy that the social structure completely changes.

    Some of this change will be inevitable, as the only constant is change. However, the assumption that we should be willing to accept any sort of socioeconomic change in order to preserve the physical city as it is doesn’t resonate with me. It certainly shouldn’t be put forth as a way to avoid change, when it’s really just trading one kind of change for another.

    The reference to Corbusier’s Paris plan also seemed odd, both a misreading of what that plan represents as well as what those advocating zoning deregulation are saying.

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