Intervention that Works

Matthew Yglesias
The Rent Is Too Damn High
(Simon & Schuster, 2012)

To listen to most pundits, in contemporary America, perceptions of governmental regulations generally break along predictable political lines. The conservative right, embodied in the Tea Party movement, views regulation as a symbol of government excess and bloated bureaucracy, an impediment to freedom and God-lovin’ liberty that is forcing us on down the road to serfdom.Liberals, on the other hand, embrace regulation, seeing in it essential protections for the poor, disadvantaged, and pretty much anyone who prefers their food untainted and their bodies of water unsullied by oil.

Yet, as Matthew Yglesias points out in his excellent new e-book, The Rent Is Too Damn High, when it comes to U.S. housing policy and zoning regulations, the stereotypical political demarcations don’t apply. Though our existing zoning rules are in direct opposition to the tenets of free markets, conservatives remain remarkably silent, or even endorse policies that restrict building height, or require minimum lot sizes and egregious numbers of parking spaces for all new development. Liberals, for their part, fail to recognize that our current housing policies actually hurt the very groups the left most wants to protect. If liberals truly care about providing affordable housing in areas with access to public transportation and jobs, it’s hypocritical to then support policies like rent control that benefit the few at the expense of the many or that restrict density in America’s most desirable and productive cities.

Yglesias, a self-professed liberal, who currently writes the Moneybox blog for Slate, and formerly wrote for the Center for American Progress, the Atlantic and the American Prospect, does a commendable job of laying out the pure inanity of the U.S.’s housing policy since the 1950s. The suburbanization of the country and the soaring price of housing in select coastal cities don’t just reflect the preferences of baby boomers and an undying American love of car travel. Rather, these are the outcomes of ill-conceived policies that make it ridiculously expensive to live in the places where there are the most jobs and the highest standards of living.

Yglesias’s main argument is that throughout most of the U.S., zoning regulations prevent density. And density is good. Yet, it is illegal for developers to build enough buildings to meet demand, leading to shortages, suburban sprawl, and that $3000 a month crawl space you’re renting on the Lower East Side. Whether it’s height restrictions in Yglesias’s adopted home of Washington, D.C., or minimum lot size requirements in Palo Alto, excessive home prices and soaring rents aren’t immutable facts of life or consequences of economic black magic. They’re the results of bad policy, bad policy that governmental officials on both sides of the aisle can and should change.

This argument should be especially appealing to all those who fret about gentrification. The economic turnaround of a neighborhood like Park Slope or Carroll Gardens shouldn’t necessarily lead to incumbent residents being forced out because they can no longer meet the cost of rent. It only does so when developers can’t build enough housing to keep up with the rising demand. All those who want to live in areas with easy access to amenities and jobs should be able to.

What’s so frustrating about the contemporary housing market Yglesias describes is that smarter housing policy would benefit everyone. This shouldn’t be an issue in which one has to pick a side based on political affiliation. Increasing housing density around transportation hubs and in America’s most prosperous cities would result in more funding for public transportation, which would mean better public transportation and less congestion for those who still drive. It would also mean less pollution, less development of untouched green space, less spent on gas or cars, easy access to where job opportunities are most plentiful, and, of course, cheaper housing costs. It’s hard to imagine that anyone, even Michele Bachmann, would be against that. And yet, in today’s political environment, many politicians, especially on the right (Bachmann included) view any attempt to remove existing car-friendly regulations as an attempt to turn us into a socialist European nation. Yglesias’s book goes a long way in showing why that perception should change.

If The Rent Is Too Damn High has any fault, it’s that it’s so succinct and tightly written that readers interested in learning more about the specific regulations of individual cities will have to look elsewhere. It would also be interesting to see how Yglesias would apply his beliefs to cities that largely derive their appeal from historical features that promote low density. The distinctive single-family houses of my home, New Orleans, would be a prime example. While New Orleans’s central business district has seen a rise in high density apartment buildings since Hurricane Katrina, the city’s most iconic and appealing neighborhoods, such as the French Quarter, Garden District, and Uptown, base their charm in large part around spacious single-family homes on comfortably-sized lots. New Orleans isn’t suburbia, but it’s also not Midtown Manhattan. There is a risk that such neighborhoods might become less appealing to potential buyers if high density apartments suddenly sprang up beside the blocks of shotgun homes. That’s not to say that the benefits of higher density housing might not outweigh historical or aesthetic considerations—only that those features should be considered in the first place.

Ultimately, the book is compelling because it is a polemic in every sense of the word. Those seeking an appreciation of the joys of suburbia (however odd such a concept might seem) won’t find it here. But Yglesias wisely clarifies that his ideas need not mean that committed lovers of Hummers, chain restaurants, and Walmart supercenters floating in seas of asphalt suddenly become adoptees of walkable urbanism. He writes:

The point isn’t that everything in the country should look like Manhattan. America has, on the whole, a low number of people per square mile and will continue to be a predominantly low-density country. But those parts of the country where land is expensive should nonetheless be densely built so as to ensure that office and apartment rents remain reasonable. If select structures are so aesthetically significant as to make their demolition intolerable, then that’s fine—there’s nothing wrong with curtailing economic efficiency in pursuit of aesthetic goals from time to time. But the current practice of mandatory suburbanism across the vast majority of every metropolitan area is absurd.

Whether our policymakers recognize that absurdity is another issue altogether. But at least The Rent Is Too Damn High has provided a clear blueprint, accessible to wonks and nonwonks alike, about how policy drives human behavior and how both the policies and behavior need to transform to make quality housing affordable to all.

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