But enough about me

Update: Aaron Renn, very nicely, has said that this description wasn’t aimed at me. I’m going to leave this here with the stipulation that it’s not really aimed at him: it’s aimed at the general use of privileged urban newcomers as a way, ingenuous or otherwise, to distract from the real economic and justice argument that’s made about housing supply. In Aaron’s defense, he ultimately supports loosening supply. But this is an argument I’ve seen in a lot of places, by people who are very much dismissive of that argument, and I find it frustrating. So here it is.


Here are the facts.

1. Restrictive zoning laws cause segregation. Holding all else equal, blacks and whites are more separated in places with tighter restrictions on building new housing. So are the rich and poor. My debating partners on the question of housing supply don’t really dispute this.

2. The people who suffer the most as a result of this segregation are people who are either poor, nonwhite, or both. It means that they live in more dangerous neighborhoods with fewer stores to serve their basic needs, like eating groceries, send their kids to worse schools, and have worse access to good jobs. My debating partners not only don’t dispute this, they’ve actually written quite eloquently about it themselves.

3. I am a white person who is not poor living in a neighborhood I love with low crime, lots of amenities, and good access to downtown jobs.

4. Some of my debating partners are convinced that I am interested in this issue not because I care about segregation or equity, but out of a selfish sense of entitlement and frustration that I can’t live somewhere cooler. Aaron Renn’s latest post at The Urbanophile, which otherwise has a lot of really interesting points about how demand frames supply problems, helpfully contains both Pete Saunders’ and his own take on my attitudinal flaws (forgive the lengthy quote):

Why wouldn’t the people who can’t afford downtown rents just move into one of those areas? The answer is obvious: they want to live downtown specifically. They may in fact choose another location, but they will grouse about it. Pete Saunders nailed this mentality in his post “The Millennial Housing Shortage Fallacy”:

“Blogger Daniel Kay Hertz sheds some light on the thought process behind the growing meme: ‘Why are there no apartment buildings in your standard affluent single family home neighborhood, common in metro areas from Chicago to Kansas City to New York to Memphis? Not because people don’t want to live in them. Not because you couldn’t make money building them. They don’t exist because they’re illegal.’

The emphasis is added because it highlights the salient point, which can be reduced to this: “why isn’t there more housing where I want it?” Because there are plenty of apartment buildings with plenty of vacancies in other parts of the city. Let’s fill those up, and then talk.

If young urbanists are serious about moving back to the city, maybe they ought to consider more of the city to live in. For every highly desirable attractive urban neighborhood, even in the most in-demand metro areas, there are just as many languishing neighborhoods that aren’t even part of the conversation. For every Lincoln Park or Lakeview in Chicago that lacks affordable housing, there is a Garfield Park or Woodlawn with tons of it.”

In other words, the real complaint is that the market isn’t producing the type of housing I want, in the place I want it, at the price I can afford to pay. It’s special pleading.

I’m not sure why they feel that way. I can’t speculate, since I don’t have whatever training is necessary to psychoanalyze one’s debating opponents over the Internet. (I should look into it, though, because it seems like a sweet gig.)

I can, though, point out that it seems a bit weird, in light of the fact that I live in a neighborhood now widely considered one of Chicago’s trendiest, to believe that I am frustrated I don’t live somewhere cooler. I can point out that when I talk about restrictive zoning, my targets have frequently been suburban areas – including suburbs of Kansas City – that aren’t really on the top of hipsters’ “urban cache” lists. I can also point out that my blog is full of my own maps of segregation by race and class, and essays on the history of racial violence in Chicago, housing discrimination, the relationship between urbanism and egalitarian politics, and so on, and that there is basically nothing in which I express a desire to live anywheere other than where I currently live.

I can also point out, for the record, that the vein of research I draw on to make these arguments actually originates with far-left and anti-racist activist academics, not Matt Yglesias and Ryan Avent.

I can point out, most importantly, that telling people who currently live where they don’t want that they shouldn’t worry about high prices keeping them out of safe neighborhoods with grocery stores because there are plenty of neighborhoods with available housing where their kids will go to failing schools and, oh right, they also stand a good chance of being shot – that you can lecture about how high prices aren’t really a problem, while you write a blog post in your home in a neighborhood lots of people can’t afford to move to – is exactly what I think is corrupt and awful about the current system.

But, anyway, Fact 4, though it is unfortunate, is way less unfortunate than Facts 1 and 2, so we should probably focus our energies on those.

So enough of this. I’ll have a response to the substance of the latest round of debate shortly.

4 thoughts on “But enough about me

  1. “Restrictive zoning laws cause segregation. Holding all else equal, blacks and whites are more separated in places with tighter restrictions on building new housing.”

    There’s a hidden huge leap between your first sentence and your second. Zoning laws are not the only kind of restrictions on building new housing, and you only need to look at Houston, which is famously without zoning restrictions but where much of the city is covered by covenants, deed restrictions, HOAs, etc., to see that you can end up with just as much segregation without zoning qua zoning. (Indeed, by some measures Houston is the most economically segregated city in America). Benjamin Ross’s Dead End (which I think I may have first heard about on your blog?) makes this point very convincingly and at length.

    Eliminating zoning without also defanging deed covenants and HOA bylaws just means replacing a flawed process with some measure of democratic accountability with a process that has no accountability at all, where if you’re lucky only property owners have a vote and renters are explicitly disenfranchised, and if you’re unlucky, only the long-dead lawyers who penned decades-old deed restrictions have a vote.

    1. That is super true. There’s a good amount of evidence that Houston’s system amounts more or less to privatized zoning, with some cracks in the wall big enough for a few really out-of-place-looking projects to get through.

      1. Houston is also seeing large price increases in Montrose; there may not be any zoning in Houston, but it’s illegal to build the walkable urbanism of Montrose today because of the required setbacks and parking minimums.

      2. Alon is absolutely correct about Houston’s land use controls. See Michael Lewyn’s “How Overregulation Creates Sprawl (Even in a City without Zoning)” for the most thorough discussion of the “no zoning in Houston” meme.

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