Three recent events have made me think a lot about land and affordable housing. It began with a conversation with Nigel Jacob about Boston’s commitment to use the Bloomberg Philanthropies i-teams approach to solve the city’s housing affordability crisis and what that really could mean in practice. Soon thereafter, the Economist’s cover, “Space & the City,” focused on how poor land use around the globe is unnecessarily limiting the supply of housing. It’s lead editorial said, “Even in these great cities the scarcity [of land] is artificial. Regulatory limits on the height and density of buildings constrain supply and inflate prices.” They cited a report that estimated that employment in the Bay Area would be five times greater than it is now if limits on construction were lifted. And last week, at HUD’s Housing Affordability Opportunity conference, Jonathan Woetzel, citing his recent McKinsey Global Institute housing report, identified land as “the single most important factor for housing affordability.”
The arguments about the importance of land to the availability of affordable housing made in the Economist and the McKinsey report are compelling. It’s not that land for housing is scarce; it’s that we are allowing it to be used (or not used) in ways that make it so. Clearly, a new and very different paradigm for land use has to be a part of any city’s approach to addressing housing affordability, whether it be Boston, New York or San Francisco. What’s really keeping that from happening and what can we do about it?
Leadership and Denial. There is no question that a lot of limitations on the use of land today are driven by NIMBYism and economics. People simply don’t want low-income housing coming next door to where they live or competition from others owning offices, homes, etc. in their communities. But those pressures are not all that different from any other political challenge needing reform, from licensing to fair housing. What’s missing in the affordable housing debate is leadership. Local leaders, public and private, have to help the public understand two things: (1) we want and need our local populations to grow. A drop-off in population growth is a big reason why economic growth has slowed in so many countries, like the European Union, but not here in the US; and (2) as our population grows, so must the built environment’s ability to absorb it. We’ve been in denial for too long that we can have population growth but not change how we use land to accommodate it.
Tyranny of dead ideas. Matt Miller coined this phrase as the title of his 2010 book. Fundamentally, what it is refers to are policies and practices that were created long ago based on a set of assumptions that aren’t true anymore – like having to close public schools in the summer so all children could work the fields. If we don’t challenge those outdated assumptions and change our policies and practices accordingly, we become tyrannized by them. In fact, we continue to have fights to the death over the length of the school year. Our land use policies fit that same mold. Almost all US cities are still governed by land use rules and regulations tailored to the nineteenth century problems of rapidly expanding industrialization, unchecked crime and the spread of disease. Not exactly the problems we face today. Simply put, we are now suffering from the tyranny of those dead ideas.
- Need for innovation and successes. How the City of Boston is taking on this issue of affordable housing is incredibly promising. Instead of saying that this is a housing problem so let’s look to the housing department to solve it alone, they are saying we need to innovate fresh approaches to an old problem. Yes, the affordable housing industry has an incredible toolbox from which to work, from tax credits and rental subsidies, to inclusive zoning and trust funds, but given how far demand exceeds supply, it’s clearly not enough. I hold out hope that Boston, with the right leadership from the Mayor as well as other public and private leaders, will start to build that new paradigm.
Housing development, when done right, creates stability and economic vitality—both within individual families and within our cities at large. There’s a new conversation and energy around this decades-old problem. We must all help to turn that into dramatically better results for low income people.
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