How to House America

Fixing the American housing crisis will require constructing more houses, but also increasing subsidies and protections for existing tenants.

In 2014, the San Francisco metropolitan region was creating one new housing unit for every eight new jobs. Yet in Lafayette, a town east of Berkeley, an enormous struggle arose among local residents, building developers, and housing advocates over a proposed new housing development. The plan sounded reasonable: a multiunit development on an empty lot near the freeway and a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station, which initially called for less than half the number of homes the zoning rules permitted. And yet, local residents were outraged and continued to block the project even after the developer scaled back his proposal to less than one-twentieth the number of homes technically allowed on the site. So the region’s growing workforce gained few, if any, new places to live.

The fight in Lafayette exemplifies the country’s broader conflicts over housing, a struggle illuminated in two excellent new books: Neighborhood Defenders, by political scientists Katherine Levine Einstein, David M. Glick, and Maxwell Palmer, and Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America, by New York Times journalist Conor Dougherty. Both highlight the local political dynamics that make such higher-density housing development so difficult, even in two highly progressive areas suffering from widely acknowledged affordability crises: San Francisco and Boston.

The conflicts are fierce. On one side are the subjects of Einstein, Glick, and Palmer’s study: the “neighborhood defenders,” people who are adamant about keeping their neighborhoods free from new development. (They typically are older, wealthier white homeowners resisting any threat to their property values, but can also be poorer people of color fearing what affluence might do to their communities.) Historically, this group of residents falls under the header NIMBY, or “not in my backyard”: opposed to new development in their area.

On the other side are those arguing for the need for more housing. Featured in Dougherty’s book, this group includes developers, urban economists, many affordable housing advocates, and most notably, an emerging set of activists organizing under a new banner—YIMBY, “yes in my backyard.” The YIMBY advocates call for the construction of new homes in all communities: market-rate as well as affordable housing. These proponents may have the right idea about solving America’s housing woes, but their methods and perspective have not always been useful in galvanizing local support.

For the YIMBY movement to truly become a force, both books suggest, it must show some level of respect for the interests of neighborhood defenders, especially low-income neighborhood defenders in gentrifying areas. And substantively, it will have to include calls not only for more housing construction but also for more subsidies and protections for existing tenants.

Balance is key. But both books also show how out of balance the current system is, and the degree to which this imbalance favors the status quo. While each individual project that is delayed, downsized, or outright rejected may not have much effect, collectively the stalemate between development and defense is strangling our housing supply, which in turn blocks prospective new residents from moving to many of the cities that offer the most job opportunities. It’s death by a thousand cuts.

Boosting supply may not be the only answer to our affordable housing crisis, but allowing for more homes is a necessary step in many markets. These two books go a long way in helping us understand the local political obstacles to doing so.

The solution to today’s housing shortage must involve developing more densely in places where people already live.

What, exactly, is going on with American housing? From Duluth to Somerville and from San Antonio to New York City, mayors across the country describe their cities as facing housing “crises” and “emergencies.” And it’s no wonder. Over the past few decades, rents have risen, incomes have not kept pace, and as a result, renter households spend far greater shares of their income on rent. Nearly half of all renters now spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent (the standard threshold for affordability), up from less than 25 percent in 1960. The situation for low-income renters is even worse: four out of five renters with incomes in the bottom fifth of the distribution now spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent.

There’s a growing consensus that to address this affordability crisis, we need to build more housing. (Indeed, this may be the one issue about which Elizabeth Warren and Donald Trump agree.) In the past, this was fairly easy. The US simply constructed more housing through creating new suburbs where there were no existing residents to object.

Unfortunately, such outward growth is no longer possible in many cities, given the unsustainable commutes and emissions it would produce. The solution to today’s housing shortage must involve developing more densely in places where people already live. And this means confronting local politics.

As many have noted, there are serious structural obstacles and political difficulties to such development. First off, new housing widely distributes benefits (all Bay Area residents likely see a very small gain in affordability when a new apartment building is constructed in Mountain View) but concentrates costs (only immediate neighbors in Mountain View are possibly at risk of increased congestion, blocked views, and other changes in neighborhood environment).

As a result, potential losers are far more motivated to block development than potential winners are to advocate for it. This imbalance is magnified by the fact that the potential losers already live in, vote in, and know the community, while most of the potential winners do not. This advantage of incumbency—what we can rightly call the home advantage—is substantial.

While the difficulties of development are well-trodden territory in political science, Einstein, Glick, and Palmer’s Neighborhood Defenders provides valuable new insights, adding nuance to the motives of these NIMBY residents and, on the flip side, substantiating some of the criticisms against them.

Through painstaking analysis of minutes from zoning- and planning-board meetings in the Boston metropolitan area, the authors show that the local residents who participate in community meetings are not particularly representative of the community as a whole. They tend to be older and whiter, as well as more likely to own their homes. They are also disproportionately opposed to new housing proposals.

In short, more advantaged residents tend to be more successful in blocking development. While this pattern is expected, no one else has demonstrated it with such extensive data.

And as the Lafayette example makes clear, a parcel being zoned for development does not mean that it can and will be developed. This highlights the shortcomings of much of the existing research on the impact of land use regulations, which tends to focus on the substance of regulations because it can be measured. Einstein et al. illustrate that the more significant issue may be procedural: regulations create opportunities for neighborhood residents to express their views and delay, alter, and block proposed new developments. Multilevel approval processes provide forums for local residents, which amplify the effect of existing regulations and inhibit even those developments that conform to them.

In April 2010, for example, the owners of a large lot in Ipswich, Massachusetts, requested a waiver from the town’s zoning board to add a second two-family home on their parcel. Although the zoning allowed for this many units, they still needed approval because the parcel was oddly shaped. After five zoning-board meetings, six planning-board meetings, and a lawsuit, construction of this single, two-family house ultimately went forward. But the significant delays raised costs and sent a powerful warning to future developers.

Ipswich, like Lafayette, is a cautionary tale of what can go awry when the voices of some—legacy homeowners—are amplified more than the voices of others—specifically, those who have been shut out of communities because of the lack of housing. The neighborhood defenders might have a genuine interest in protecting their local neighborhood. But at a macro level, such NIMBY defenders endanger the chances of others to have neighborhoods of their own to defend.

Given that the stakes are so high for local residents and so low for everyone else, it remains a surprise that the YIMBY movement has emerged. Dougherty’s book, Golden Gates, tells the story of California housing politics through the eyes of the movement’s leaders, as well as local public officials, developers, and community advocates fighting for tenant rights. Some view the budding YIMBY movement as a promising new political force to balance the voices of neighborhood defenders, who typically dominate the politics of local housing.

Through these compelling stories, Dougherty illustrates how highly polarized and divisive the debates about housing have become, even in the liberal Bay Area. Much of the conflict has played out in battles over California Senate Bill 50, which proposes to override local zoning and allow mid-rise housing in transit- and job-rich areas. Growth proponents are criticized as shills for developers, while opponents are demonized as racist, classist, or simply too dumb to understand the basic rules of supply and demand.

Dougherty paints a portrait of YIMBY advocates as politically naive and at times overly combative, but generally well intentioned. He shows how social media has amplified brash and snarky voices (calling a neighborhood character a “cancer” or reporting on the value of homes owned by progressive growth opponents) and buried geekier discussions of the importance of building housing. His balanced lens helps readers gain a sense of both the pressing need for affordable housing and the formidable political challenges to creating it.

To make progress in overcoming neighborhood opposition, the first step is to better understand it.

Both books deserve credit for not demonizing the participants on either side of the housing debate. Dougherty gets beyond stereotypes in depicting the YIMBY advocates he follows, and so do Einstein et al. in portraying growth opponents, showing that while some are racist and classist, many are genuinely concerned about neighborhood character and stability. Indeed, the authors reject the term NIMBY in favor of “neighborhood defenders” to reflect the fact that legacy residents view themselves as protecting not just their property values or their racial privilege but also their communities.

While “neighborhood defenders” might strike some as generous (and a bit militaristic), I think it’s a step in the right direction. To make progress in overcoming neighborhood opposition, the first step is to better understand it, and the authors provide a nuanced picture of residents’ motivations and fears.

This connects to the challenging case of low-income neighborhoods facing gentrification pressures, which is also discussed in both books. When it comes to such neighborhoods—and their defenders—the simple narrative of growth advocates fighting racist NIMBY residents clearly rings false.

In gentrifying neighborhoods, the neighborhood defenders are often lower-income renters from communities of color that have been historically disinvested. Their targets are not developments that threaten to bring in families with incomes lower than those of legacy residents but market-rate developments likely to attract residents with higher incomes. Their motivation is not the possibility that new development will lower their property values but rather the fear that it might increase rents and accelerate displacement through making the neighborhood more attractive to gentrifiers. (New research suggests that new development does not increase rents in immediately surrounding areas and opens up vacancies1—but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t costs to development.) In short, their opposition is more difficult to dismiss.

Both books show the initial failure of the YIMBY movement to appreciate the distinctions between low-income and wealthier defenders. Instead of targeting neighborhoods best able to accommodate development—both physically and culturally—YIMBY advocates brought the same rallying cry of more housing to all.

In one infamous case, a well-known YIMBY advocate publicly stated that resistance to development by residents of San Francisco’s largely Latino Mission District made them “exactly the same as Americans all over the country who don’t want immigrants.” Other YIMBY proponents rarely, if ever, call out growth opponents in low-income neighborhoods as nativist but have lectured them about supply and demand. The YIMBY side failed to appreciate the genuine fear that legacy residents in gentrifying neighborhoods have about losing their homes, communities, and social networks. Cultural displacement may be distinct from direct displacement, but it still imposes costs.

To truly understand the fears of legacy residents, we may need to move beyond political science and turn to psychology and behavioral economics, and in particular to what is known as the endowment effect, identified by Daniel Kahneman and coauthors. Specifically, people tend to place a greater value on things once they feel that they own them.2 Legacy homeowners, but renters too, feel deep attachment to and ownership of their communities. Thus, they may value them more highly than the market does and instinctively resist any changes (even those that might be seen by outsiders as improvements).

A key question then is whether we should afford residents of lower-income and gentrifying neighborhoods more control over development than residents of affluent suburbs. Neither book answers in a fully satisfying way, though the authors deserve credit for raising the question. I won’t purport to answer it fully here either, but point out a few distinctions that might argue for differential treatment of gentrifying neighborhoods.

First, legacy residents of lower-income neighborhoods typically have less ability to exit their communities, both because their lower incomes and racial backgrounds constrain their set of alternative neighborhoods and because they may rely more heavily on local networks for childcare and other support.

Second, as Einstein et al. point out, legacy residents of lower-income neighborhoods have less ability to exercise their voice. That is, they have fewer resources and less power and ability to block development.

Third, urban neighborhoods are more likely to have minority ethnic cultures that provide a significant source of strength and support. Residents of affluent white suburbs may also draw strength from their communities but, as members of the dominant culture in society, may be less dependent upon them.

Finally, building more affordable housing in already low-income neighborhoods will perpetuate economic and racial segregation.

All that said, we shouldn’t stop all development in low-income neighborhoods. Many, indeed most, continue to suffer from disinvestment, and for those experiencing gentrification, new housing can help to absorb the demand of in-movers and temper increases in prices and rents.


The False Hopes of Homeownership

By Bo McMillan

To move forward, both books suggest that the YIMBY movement needs to be more sensitive to these distinctions and to build a coalition with affordable housing and tenant advocates. It needs to appreciate that while allowing more market-rate housing development in coastal markets is critical and will help to reduce prices and rents for most households, it will do little in the short run to alleviate the high rent burdens that so many lower-income households shoulder. Even if we allowed developers to build as much as they wanted, lower-income households would still need subsidies to help them afford the rent levels needed to cover basic operating costs.

Ultimately, what is missing from the housing crisis may not be more outrage, but more cognitive empathy and cooperation. Taken together, both books show that a successful housing coalition must accept the need for new housing everywhere while being sensitive to power dynamics, the stubborn legacy of discrimination, and the crushing rent burdens and housing instability that so many low-income families face.


This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloomicon

  1. Xiaodi Li, “Do New Housing Units in Your Backyard Raise Your Rents?” (job market paper), December 16, 2019.
  2. Although the endowment effect was originally demonstrated through a simple experiment using coffee mugs (sellers who owned the mugs placed a significantly higher value on them than buyers), it seems highly relevant to the case of neighborhoods.
Featured image: North Beach, San Francisco, United States (2015). Photograph by Kimson Doan / Unsplash