Housing reform shouldn't be a super-polarized partisan issue
The dream is broad-based support
I’m frequently asked about the alleged tension between my YIMBY advocacy and my views on the popularism debate. This always annoys me because I feel like it should be obvious — but in the spirit of humility, if my thinking on this isn’t clear to people, it’s probably because my writing has not been clear.
So here goes:
I do not think that Democrats should make land use reform a highlight of their national message to the electorate about partisan politics.
I also do not think that land use reform is a highly polarized issue in which policy outcomes are substantially driven by the partisan balance of power.
I also also do not think it would be desirable for land use reform to become the kind of highly polarized issue where the plan for progress is “hope Democrats win and do a reconciliation bill.”
I’m not going to get misty-eyed about the good old days of the low-polarization Congress. But it is objectively difficult to make progress on policy issues via party-line votes. When a topic ends up falling into the polarization maw and advocates need to navigate that reality, I think “highlight popular ideas, shut up about unpopular ones” is a good framework for doing so. But fortunately, lots of important issues aren’t currently in the polarization maw and it is possible to make progress on them through mechanisms like Secret Congress, the annual appropriations cycle, various Gangs of Whatever, and ad hoc state-level politics.
For example, Senators Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Todd Young (R-IN) are the co-sponsors of the YIMBY Act, a modest but good piece of legislation that “would require Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) recipients to go on the record with why they are not adopting specific pro-affordability and anti-discriminatory housing policies.”
Both Schatz and Young have safe seats and don't need to worry about whether co-sponsoring the YIMBY Act is good or bad for their reelection prospects. And precisely because it’s a bipartisan bill, they also don’t need to worry about blowback on their colleagues. They’re just two backbench senators who decided to get something done in D.C. that would help make people’s lives better. I hope that someday one or the other (or both of them) convinces party leaders to staple this thing to some must-pass bill and it becomes law. And then I hope they do a 2IMBY 2ACT that attaches similar conditions to transportation funding, which on the merits would have more teeth. And if any federal YIMBY stuff passes, Biden should of course sign it and praise it, and he should hope to squeeze some political benefit out of the warm glow of bipartisanship.
But neither Biden nor anyone else should try to turn this into a partisan messaging point.
Housing polling is all over the map
Housing policy polling results seem to be highly sensitive to the question being asked.
For example, here’s a poll showing tons of YIMBY bills underwater in California. But here’s a poll showing overwhelming support for the very ambitious SB-50, and here’s another one. Patrick Ruffini conducted a national poll with a kind of left-YIMBY framing and it was pretty unpopular. I asked him to try a different wording that emphasized free markets and property rights instead of affordable housing and mass transit, but he didn’t take me up on that. But back last fall his company Echelon Insights did some polling with the conservative Manhattan Institute that used more right-inflected language and found YIMBY ideas to be popular.
My understanding of the public opinion literature is that it’s not unusual for poll results to be all over the map when the topic isn’t familiar. Different wordings elicit different responses because nobody has really well-founded opinions about this stuff. I bet partisan framings would make a huge difference — “Donald Trump says he wants to stop Cory Booker from abolishing the suburbs, do you agree or disagree?” is going to generate a totally different result from “Greg Abbott is tired of Austin bureaucrats telling Texans what they can and can’t build on their own land, do you agree or disagree?”
Realistically, given the tendency toward status quo bias and loss aversion in politics, I think a reformer would most likely lose a high-profile polarized debate about a land use reform proposal. Plenty of states are lopsided enough to make that fine, but I think it is a basically bad political strategy.
This is why it’s good news that we have Republicans doing zoning reform in Utah and some Democrats doing it in California. Since this is mostly a state issue, realistically I think the strategies are going to have to vary. California is such a lopsidedly Democratic state that any strategy needs to run through the internal coalition dynamics of the Democratic Party state legislative leaders. And Utah is exactly the same but in the other direction. So rhetoric and strategy that’s appropriate to California won’t work in Utah and vice versa. But what’s appropriate in California probably also won’t work in Connecticut, a state that is very blue but which has a more moderate and less moribund state GOP. There, I think anything you’d want to do would have to be bipartisan. And then there’s a state like Wisconsin, where the politics of upzoning would probably be closer to “free-market Republicans stick it to Madison snobs” than “woke progressives fight for desegregation.”
But who knows?
I would love to see a YIMBY donor fund a really big polling project that tests out a whole bunch of different messages in different kinds of places. The most YIMBY progress has probably been made with Bay Area elected officials in the California state legislature, and the folks who’ve spearheaded those efforts deserve an enormous amount of credit. But the strategies and messages they pioneered are probably not broadly generalizable, and the whole project would benefit from some exploratory analytic work.
Lots of bipartisan stuff happens
Politics is more polarized than it used to be, which a lot of people know and have in fact overlearned to the point that they don’t realize most legislation continues to be bipartisan in nature.
It occurs to me that part of the dynamic here is the inverse of Secret Congress — when something major happens on a bipartisan basis, neither coalition’s advocacy/attention machine fires up, so it tends to get ignored. If Democrats had enacted a historic investment in mass transit, intercity rail, vehicle electrification, and water de-leading on a party-line vote, that would be points on the board as a major Biden Administration achievement. But because it happened in a bipartisan bill, the message from conservative groups has been that it’s bad or it didn’t happen (because they don’t want to say Biden is good), and from progressives groups it’s been that it’s unimportant or it didn’t happen (because they want to keep up the heat on Biden to deliver more stuff).
But if you are a person who likes to drink water that isn’t contaminated with lead, it’s very good news for you that this spending attracted bipartisan support and didn’t end up in the Manchin traffic jam with every other progressive priority.
By the same token, there’s a reasonably good chance of a new antitrust law cosponsored by Amy Klobuchar and Chuck Grassley passing. In this case, I actually think the law is pretty ill-advised and some of the new thinking on antitrust is sloppy and wrong. But separate from my assessment of its merits, it’s gotten some real traction, including with Republicans. Lina Khan got a lot of Republican votes in her confirmation as FTC Chair. The magic trick the competition policy people pulled off here is they actually persuaded some Republicans that their ideas are right on the merits. They didn’t build an overwhelming grassroots pressure campaign. They didn’t get a carve-out to the filibuster. They didn’t get Biden to do a big showy speech. They convinced a bunch of members of the other party that some of their ideas are correct and they should cooperate on enacting them.
Persuading elite actors that you are right is a very underrated mechanism of political change because it’s not as fun as intra-coalition jockeying. But it really does have a lot of merits.
The partisan path is difficult
After all, the other model for getting things done has a lot of steps:
First, you have to get your idea widely accepted as the correct progressive (or conservative) solution to a problem.
Then you need to fight with other members of your coalition about priority and convince the world that your thing is more important than everyone else’s thing.
Then your party needs to score a House/White House/Senate trifecta.
And finally you need to squeeze a couple of holdout moderates to get your way.
That’s the story of the Build Back Better Act. The folks working to create a subsidized child care plan were following this strategy. So were the folks working to create a paid leave program. And the folks working on decarbonizing the electrical grid. And the folks working on improving Medicare. And a whole bunch of other folks working on a whole bunch of other issues. There’s now a tragically decent chance that none of this will be enacted. For that, I primarily blame bad leadership from the top levels of the Democratic Party. But better leadership wouldn’t have meant making everyone’s dreams come true; it would have meant forcing more decisions about prioritization so that they could have done something quickly rather than doing nothing slowly.
But that just underscores how difficult the party-line path to change really is, because most presidents only get one or two bills like that.
My personal favorite now-dead non-climate idea from the BBB package is cash assistance to parents and children. My hope is that my Niskanen Center friends Samuel Hammond and Robert Orr are right that this can be rebooted as a bipartisan initiative involving Mitt Romney. That’s a hard path and I’m not terribly optimistic, but the partisan path is also very difficult, especially because the concept of cash benefits to non-workers is inherently vulnerable to demagoguery. Actually convincing Republicans that this should be their alternative to subsidizing daycare centers might be easier than winning a partisan argument about the “undeserving” poor. We’ll see. But to loop back to the YIMBY issue, I think the upshot is that the movement maximizes success by maximizing flexibility rather than coalition compatibility.
The perils of coalitionism
I think a fair amount about the brief period when Ben Carson decided to go YIMBY. I wouldn’t say that’s a shocking idea, as YIMBYism is a pretty standard free market analysis, just applied to urban housing markets — I learned these ideas originally from Ed Glaeser, who is pretty right-wing. But for progressive YIMBYs toiling in the political trenches in New York City and San Francisco and constantly getting called neoliberal Reagan fanatics, it felt more like a threat than a victory to be embraced by Trump’s HUD Secretary.
Now as it turns out, the Trump administration never actually did any YIMBY stuff. Then the next year, Cory Booker and Jim Clyburn introduced the HOME Act and Trump started accusing them of wanting to abolish the suburbs. That created a more comfortable political dynamic for progressive YIMBYs living in big cities in blue states; we got to say we were on the side of Booker and Clyburn, and the left-NIMBY posers were lining up with Trump’s post-Floyd racial fear-mongering.
But it would be better for the cause for the national GOP to be more like Todd Young or the Utah Republicans or the Conservative Party of Canada, all of whom know that excessive regulation is economically costly.
If you want the cause of reform to prevail, you don’t want it to become part of a super-polarized partisan debate. I want progressives to support the cause, but I don’t want it to be a “progressive” cause per se. It’s just a good idea.
Blue states should be better governed
If I had to make a case that reform would be politically smart for progressives, I would look to a totally different theory of action than the popularity of upzoning: I think it is bad for progressive politics that the biggest blue states are seen as poorly governed.
There are haters out there who claim that New York and California are post-apocalyptic dystopias, and those people are dumb and wrong. You can tell by the high price of housing in New York City and coastal California (and, yes, it is still high even as remote work has somewhat reduced the premium) that these are places that a lot of people would like to live. But are they places with high-quality public services? With egalitarian economies? No. It’s telling that despite the progressive taxes in both states, they tend not to lose rich people fleeing the high rates, but working-class people fleeing the high overall cost of living. The biggest and most high-profile blue states are seen as nice places to live if you’re a rich snob.
By contrast, Texas and Florida are both growing fast, despite their problems.
Bold land use reform could turn California or New York (or Oregon or Washington or Maryland or Massachusetts) into fast-growing, economically successful states. It could turn them into states that, thanks to more generous welfare programs, offer higher living standards for people at the bottom end of the economic ladder. It could solve their legacy pension burden problems and generate a stream of good news stories about rising incomes and population growth. I think all that would be useful in national politics. But it’s useful primarily because it’s a good idea on the merits, not because arguing about housing policy is useful per se. The right way to think about it is there are a bunch of state legislatures that are dominated by Democrats, and they should try to pass some good laws.
I think you are misreading public opinion here. A few silly polls can say whatever they want. I have spent time in college towns in the midwest, tiny towns in upstate NY, and the most gentrified neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Universally, the average person opposes new housing in any neighborhood they've lived in for a long time. Go to any town in America, sit down at the bar, and ask about the newest development in town. They will not be happy about it. Look up any new construction and google "<name of town> <zoning>" and you will find a website of concerned citizens fighting any change tooth and nail. It seems to me YIMBY is only going to get more and more unpopular as it gains traction, and this really is a difficult issue for the "MY Theory of Change".
In the abstract, I'm sure you can change the framing of these kinds of questions and get different answers. But when something is actually happening in your neighborhood, it's not abstract anymore and you're going to have an opinion about it based on the actual effect, or what you think the effect will be, not sticking it to whoever on the other side.