YIMBYism can liberate us from anti-capitalism
It's good to fix problems
Economist Ed Glaeser is the person who YIMBY-pilled me, so I was eager to read his new piece in the conservative magazine City Journal titled “Free to Build: How to solve America’s housing crisis.”
I agree with every word of it, but I was a little disappointed by the take. Glaeser correctly notes that what was once a niche coastal problem has gotten worse and spread to more places. He also correctly notes that in California, a politically significant coalition of legislators seems to be making real progress and showing a consistent ability to pass statewide preemption laws. But he doesn’t really talk about the situation in New York where Kathy Hochul was sold on the gospel of upzoning and defeated in the legislature by a mix of uniform GOP opposition and suburban Democrats who feared losing to NIMBY Republican opponents. That comes in the wake, of course, of a 2020 campaign in which Donald Trump characterized a Cory Booker housing deregulation bill as a nefarious plan to “abolish the suburbs” and destroy the “suburban lifestyle dream.”
That’s certainly not to pin all of America’s land use problems on Republicans but is just to say that City Journal is uniquely well-positioned to try to check these rightist culture war impulses — especially because their sponsor, the Manhattan Institute, is simultaneously so involved in “tough on crime” work and Chris Rufo’s anti-wokeness agenda. They have the right brand to say to Long Island Republicans “look, I know you’re annoyed by liberals calling you racist because you oppose housing deregulation — we don’t think you’re racist, but we do think you’re wrong on the merits.”
The article got me thinking, though, about how I would make the case to right-of-center people that this issue is important and something they should spend more intellectual and organizational capital on.
And I thought the recent Kate Wagner article in The Nation about the move to legalize single-stair apartment buildings is a good entry point. Her thesis about single-stair buildings is “They’re a good idea, but they’re not going to liberate us from capitalism.” And that is of course true. What they will do is make life better for most people by making the American economy more capitalist, which is something conservatives should care about. I think if you talk to people my age or younger who are salty about “capitalism,” two things have really driven their discontent. One was the long, weak labor market in the wake of the Great Recession, and the other is how badly the housing market functions. A lot of leftists seem to have mixed feelings about land use reform, not so much because they think it’s a bad idea, but because they almost fear it’s too good of an idea — to call attention to the fact that we could make major improvements without ending capitalism is inconvenient for people who want to recruit for anti-capitalism.
But this is exactly why center-right people should care more. Demagoguing about Booker or Hochul or playing cute games about whether statewide zoning preemption is deregulatory (yay!) or centralizing (boo!) may have short-term upsides, but it creates toxic macro-politics.
Let’s explain this single-stair thing
In the United States of America, almost all jurisdictions require units in multifamily buildings to have access to not one but two staircases that can be used as exits in case of a fire emergency.
The way this works in practice is that modern buildings feature a long hallway with a staircase at each end, and each side of the hallway is lined with units. This “double-loaded corridor” style of construction has a few attributes that a lot of people find undesirable:
Double-loaded buildings waste a lot of space on unoccupied hallway areas.
The hallways themselves are windowless and sort of unpleasant.
The units stretching off the hallway are deep and only have windows (and therefore bedrooms) on one side.
A double-loaded building is much more cost-effective to build if it’s really large.
Allowing more single-staircase buildings would make it much more feasible to develop small infill projects, like a five-floor building with two to four units per floor. It also makes it easier to build 3BR units that would be suitable for families. Some single-stair enthusiasts are obsessed with cross-ventilation, which doesn’t seem that important to me, but it’s true you could do more of it with single-stair buildings. Mostly, though, it lets you get more square footage of housing for your construction dollar.
The obvious concern is that while fire safety features may add to costs, they also could prevent people from dying in fires. I’ve traditionally focused on land use issues rather than building code ones precisely because the cost/safety tradeoff issues don’t seem to have obvious answers in the same way that arbitrary height limits do. In this case, though, we do have clear international data because the two-staircase rules are eccentric to the U.S. and Canada. In Germany, for example, you can have a single-stair building up to 22 meters high and can build taller if you adopt supplemental fire-suppression measures.
Emily Hamilton of the Mercatus Center testified to a Virginia panel that the U.S. actually has a relatively weak overall fire safety track record. That’s because the safety benefits of two staircases on a long corridor over one staircase close by are actually somewhat ambiguous. The safest countries encourage multi-family developers to use fire-resistant building materials by giving them relief from staircase requirements if they do.
I think the cause of staircase reform appeals to leftwing people like Wagner in part precisely because single-stair buildings are widespread in Europe, and all good progressives know that Europe is good. She just wants to offer the caveat that reform won’t liberate us from capitalism.
“Capitalism” isn’t working very well
If you’re not a homeowner, the recent evolution of the American economy has been pretty unfavorable to you. Housing market dynamics have eaten up the wage gains of a lot of people living in America’s most prosperous cities. Housing market dynamics have also pushed a lot of people away from living in those cities toward sunbelt cities with cheaper housing but lower wages.
But beyond that, housing market dynamics have fostered a kind of upside-down anti-development politics.
Lots of people living in San Francisco have the perception that the influx of tech wealth has changed their city for the worse. And the unfortunate truth is that for many people, it’s probably true. In markets where the supply of housing can’t grow to match demand, a bunch of new hiring by Google and other companies probably raises local rents by more than it raises local service sector wages. This is why Silicon Valley lost public school teachers during the second tech boom. In normal economics, a booming local economy would equal booming tax revenue, making it easy to attract and retain teachers. But in a deranged housing market, the cost of living rises even faster than towns’ ability to raise teacher pay.
I think the predominant conservative view is that it’s perverse to blame “capitalism” for what’s largely a problem of overregulation. Still, the fact is that the United States is a market economy with a capitalist system. If the system doesn’t work, that reflects poorly on “capitalism.” Or perhaps rather than calling the system “capitalism,” you call it “neoliberalism” and say that neoliberalism is failing.
The irony is that the post-1980 neoliberal era is supposed to be one of deregulation. But as Glaeser documents, land use regulation has actually become dramatically more stringent, even as population growth has made that regulation costlier. I think this fact actually drives a lot of progressive churlishness about YIMBYs. The left feels, arguably correctly, that the time is ripe to overthrow neoliberalism and re-ignite a bold new era of trade protection, pro-labor activism, and industrial policy. And that’s based in part on characterizing our whole era as a time of neoliberal deregulation. Talking about housing regulation is off-narrative. Of course there’s no actual contradiction here — lots of areas of the economy have become less regulated, but housing has become more regulated. It’s just that housing is a dramatically larger economic sector than a deregulated industry like air travel.
Anti-market policies beget anti-market policies
When Seattle raised its minimum wage to $15/hour back in 2014, it was seen as a risky experiment by even many liberal economists, but it worked out fine. I was not surprised.
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