Addressing the Metropolitan Housing Pinch

In spite of vacant mansions across the Sun Belt, and abandoned properties across the Rust Belt, we still don’t have enough affordable housing in the places where it might help.  That’s the conclusion that Matt Yglesias reaches in a recent Slate squib, shortly after the Economist‘s Ryan Avent wrestled with the same basic issue, at length, in The Gated City.  It’s a real problem.  It may be that we’re long overdue for a political system that finds the courage to tell homeowners: Look, you’re going to have to accept less distorted property values, and get used to having some new apartments in the neighborhood.  But the question is, logistically, how?  Given the outsized influence of ultra-local politics on land use regulations, it’s a Sisyphean task.  In New Jersey, Mount Laurel hasn’t been adequate, and neither has targeted redevelopment.  It’s not thatGiven the degree of political and bureaucratic bullshit that obtaining a building permit can often entail, investors are understandably sour toward any residential construction project that doesn’t promise big returns.

I fear that the longer this goes on, the more currency proposals like Avent’s will gain.  That is, it begins to seem more sensible to ask: why not simply cut the Gordian Knot, and abolish all but the most utilitarian building codes?  It is particularly maddening to see the entrenched resistance to any sorts of sensible reforms, because addressing this unmet demand could be a real boon to the economy, with benefits redounding to all– including the homeowners who would predictably resist.  That is, targeted land use reforms aimed at freeing a meaningful portion of urban land for new, modest residential uses would put tradesmen and laborers back to work; allow a broader base of people to invest in the country’s strongest metropolitan land economies; and could ultimately lower labor costs in those regions where opportunities tend to concentrate.  Unfortunately, we’ve been waiting for at least fifteen years for the political system to acknowledge that there’s anything undesirable about having a status quo of astronomical housing costs.  I’m not holding my breath.