Let's not make this the next culture war frontier
As a center-right guy who loves reading your takes, I think the main factor that gets left out of urbanist/YIMBY/density discussions is schools. Realize this isn't the case for you, but I wonder if this is because a large number of self-described urbanists are young and don't have kids. Here's the issue I see:
People don't live in suburbs just because they enjoy backyards and don't like street noise (although those are real factors), but also because the schools are better. The are complicated reasons for this to be sure, but I can't think of a single metropolitan area where the public schools in the urban core compare favorably with those in middle/upper-middle class suburbs.
Even if you convinced people with kids that it was worth trading their yards, parks, and quiet streets for denser living situations, you'd need to make sure there was somewhere for them to send their kids to school. Sadly, this isn't just a funding issue. There's a death spiral issue wherein wealthier parents will not want to be the first one to send their kids to the local school, even if all of them doing so would make the school measurably better just from a student human capital perspective.
What you likely need to do is increase the number of magnet/charter schools that rely on testing for admissions to attract these parents back to downtown (and not private schools). Unfortunately, left-wing energy is very much in the opposite direction for equity reasons currently.
I really admire your efforts to make the case for density in the language of the right - I just think you'll need to have an answer on schools to make the argument more complete. I hope that's coming next!
I hope this sways some people, I really do. But I gotta say what I think is the case is that cultural conservatives hate cities qua cities because they think that living in cities causally makes people liberal.* And I suspect they're right! It's a different outlook on life when you're an atomized individual in a whole city of people from all over and can meet up in person with other people with your highly specific interests, instead of being a community member with a neatly defined place in a limited collective with shared cultural priors. And most Republicans seem to care much more about propping up their cultural traditions using state power than they care about the free market – consider Arkansas' attempt to ban meatless meat producers from using meat terminology in their product names. Less 'party of the free market', more 'vegetarianism is for sissies and we shouldn't encourage it'.
But today I was reminded of the poll finding that high-news-consumption partisan Democrats are worse at understanding Republicans than low-news-consumption Dems, so maybe I'm overstating the case. Plus I'm obviously biased here; I tried to phrase the above paragraph non-condescendingly but yeah if you put a gun to my head I'd admit I think cities are great and the higher proportion of humanity who lives in them the better. So it's not like I'm a dispassionate economist who's *not* doing cultural warfare, so maybe my pessimism about Republicans and their cultural views is motivated reasoning. But I'm still not holding my breath looking for YIMBY allies much further right than the Joe Straus/Chad Mayes school of Republicanism.
*an even less charitable view is conservatives hate cities because of the demographics of people who tend to live in cities, and I gotta say there's a fair amount of evidence that that's true of at least some conservatives.
I love Matt's analyses of what makes good policy, but I feel like most of his political analyses go like this: "People who believe in small gov/deregulation should support XXXX. It seems so obvious. It's obviously good policy. I can't figure out why they don't like it . . . Also, people need to not talk about racism, which is just an uncomfortable distraction from figuring out why conservatives insist on disagreeing when it seems logical for them to agree . . ."
For what it's worth, I believe the only time I have ever really convinced someone that they were "wrong on the internet" was in the comments somewhere, where an exurban or rural Republican clearly didn't understand the topic at hand but was spouting off about how cars and garages and single family homes should be required in all cities.
After trying with the tactic of saying, "no one is saying *you* shouldn't be able to build what you want and live where you want" she played dumb. But when I took another angle and basically asked, "Do you think that the government should be able to regulate what you do with your own property?" she completely flipped. The impulse to defend against government intrusion was stronger than the urge to troll.
I figured I would use illustrations today. (see links below) This is my backyard. It’s actually bigger than it looks here. If I could, I’d probably put up a small ADU, if for no other reason than to have a place for the constant influx of adult kids who rotate in and out of the house. 5 + 2 step. Don’t judge me.
California’s (or is it Washington’s) pro ADU law is one of the few liberal state laws I envy. There are a lot of these large or larger lots in Boise, and we have a severe housing shortage. They have tried to encourage more ADUs, but the issue is more HOAs than the city. We have to get permission and approval for what type of roof shingles to put on our houses.
Then again, I also own a small cabin in the middle of a old mining town in the middle of the Umatilla National Forest in Oregon. It’s actually classified as a ghost town (I will throw a link below as well). It’s pretty Wild West, with little building restrictions, but I would be pissed if someone put up a random apartment build there. (Not much chance of that though).
Anyway, on the to the YIMBY... affordability thing. From a borderline conservative point of view, one of the most irritating things about the political argument about infill and development, is the hypocrisy.
Matt used Palo Alto as an example, but a 3-million dollar home in Palo Alto is probably owned by a mid-level tech guy. The really rich people are going to live in places where the land is so controlled, they will always have power. No one is going to put up apartment buildings next door to the Mansions in the Hamptons or Malibu.
Anyway, I'm working at Brooklyn Navy Yard, and its amazing how many high rises are going up in this little area of Brooklyn right across from Manhattan. I was here two or three years ago, and I see multiple high rises going up. Pretty impressive. I really see no reason why Boise couldn't put up some taller downtown condos/apartments.
It's sort of crazy to me how Europe was able to organically build these dense livable and charming cities, but in the US, we struggle.
Anyone seen useful work articulating an alternative vision for zoning in the US? Matt, should advocates of reform push Abolish ICE-style absolutism on this—Abolish Zoning? Or is there a moderate approach that gets rid of the draconian prohibitions on multi family housing but keeps some perhaps necessary components around things like use types? Or maybe it’s the idea that states and regions should do all zoning and take authority away from localities? I’m intrigued by the idea of abolishing zoning but are there any models for pro-housing candidates or advocates to point to in articulating a more specific, achievable alternative?
I think a fundamental problem is that almost everyone is a closet NIMBY regardless of political leanings. And I'm hypocritical too - I like the principle of freer zoning but I bought my current house in large part for the view and would be pissed if zoning allowed construction of a high-rise that would block it.
And one also has to factor in the change in the value of a property, which can represent a homeowner's primary or only asset. People are naturally going to oppose a change that could lower the value of the property.
“The next big fights may be about whether we can build tacky subdivisions near what are today’s cute historic small towns. Or it might be tall apartments right by the beach“
While I’m broadly supportive of YIMBYism, I’m curious - is Matt’s position that we should go ahead and let rip with all of the above? And pave paradise and put up a parking lot while we’re at it?
Is there nothing at all that should stand in the way of developers building as much housing of any type in any location that they can sell it, even at the cost of completely ruining the joint for the existing residents?
"Let's not make this the next culture war frontier"
Well, that should ensure that it will turn into a front in the culture war. You might as well wave a red cape at a bull.
You talk as though there are people of good faith on the other side of this debate. And in the faculty lounge of YIMBY/NIMBY think-tanks, there may be some.
But at the Fox News level of national politics, culture war is all they've got, and they are always looking to open a new front.
So, thanks for showing them where to find it! Soon, the Trumpist wannabes will be echoing his scare-mongering about the destruction of the suburbs. It won't matter whether it's true, or what policy they're attacking. All they need to know is that people like you are for it. For Tucker and little Mario and Ron the Florida man, that's reason enough to be against it.
I live in a county in the Philly suburbs and I was not prepared for how much these people care about empty fields. I grew up in NJ and every square inch of space is built on already so I didn't really have exposure to empty field politics, only apartment politics. But it seems like in PA they build a development in a totally empty field and everyone that moves in will oppose any development in the empty field next to them.
Everything is very local in terms of what people care about. Most of the new homes built I see are actually row homes, they are giant humongous row homes, but they are not detached. It's weird what people care about. I live in an old steel town on the river with twins with no front lawns and every single house here would be illegal to build under the recent Village Preservation District zoning we are now in. We're literally just down the street from the empty field housing politics and we have parking politics for our zoning fights since there are no driveways and the lots are tiny.
Efforts to change policy at the federal and state levels are good and necessary, but one thing I (maybe half-jokingly) think YIMBYs ought to do is treat suburban balkanization as an opportunity and not just a challenge, by choosing one or two or three "YIMBYtowns" in every high-cost metro, moving in, taking over, and changing the rules about the physical environment. Sort of like what some immigrant groups have done (Armenians in Glendale CA, Filipinos in Daly City CA, Koreans in Palisades Park NJ, Indians in Edison NJ, etc). It won't solve the problem alone, but if you turn, say, Hayward CA into Hong Kong on the East Bay *and it's nice*, then it'll be helpful as a proof of concept that dense, upzoned communities are nothing to fear.
I always wonder how no conservative state government has enacted some sort of "right-to-build" law on urban areas in their state to own the libs. That seems like a win-win from a jobs and culture war perspective.
On the subject of weekend villas and country homes becoming suburbs, the first commuter rail service was basically on the Boston & Albany (today's MBTA Framingham/Worcester line) when they started offering commutated tickets (effectively monthly passes) so the wealthy in Boston could freely go to their country homes in Auburndale.
In some sense it was the mid-19th century version of a frequent flyer program.
If you want to end (or avoid) the culture war, don't try to force this issue from the federal level. Do it the hard way, state by state.
I think a fair amount of opposition to suburban style zoning also comes from climate change. A large suburban home and a commute in a luxury suv are not very environmentally friendly. Lawns are water intensive and sustaining an aesthetic monoculture means fertilizers. Large homes are expensive to heat and cool and the electricity is not yet primarily renewables. Most vehicles are not yet electric or hybrid. Few mid/outer suburbs have quality public transit.
It’s not that I disagree with zoning deregulation, but I don’t think one key component of the left opposition is represented in the article.
Most of southern San Francisco Bay is shallower than a public swimming pool. It could easily be reclaimed and given over to affordable housing. The shorter commutes would reduce carbon emissions. Everyone would win, at the expense of some brackish water and the fish who inhabit it. Why aren’t these kinds of solutions on the table?