Cities are built around jobs, and the nation’s inequality reflects that. In a trend that has been exhaustively documented by economists and journalists, over the past four decades the U.S. economy has bifurcated into high-paying jobs in fields like tech and finance and low-paying jobs in retail and personal services. It could be described as two separate societies, but in U.S. metropolitan areas these societies are intertwined.
This is as true in Boise as it is in San Francisco. Some work has to be done in person. No matter how high housing costs get, there is not, as of yet, a way to telecommute to a cleaning job. So unless the hordes of expatriate Californians flocking to cheaper cities expect their children to be in remote school forever, to never again eat at a restaurant, to always tidy their own homes — and unless companies leaving California expect to do without the services of janitors and security guards — the underlying problem will persist in every next city that has the misfortune of becoming desirable.
Scholars started documenting California’s affordable housing crisis in the mid-1970s, and since then liberal and conservative economists have identified stringent zoning regulations and not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) politics as leading causes of the nation’s housing problem. Both Republican and Democratic administrations have taken up the NIMBY issue. Jack Kemp, the secretary of housing and urban development for the first President George Bush, convened a housing advisory commission whose 1991 report was called “Not in My Back Yard: Removing Barriers to Affordable Housing.”
President Barack Obama spoke against “rules that stand in the way of building new housing” in a speech in 2016, and President Donald J. Trump, echoing Mr. Bush, signed an executive order in 2019 establishing a White House council on affordable housing. (Mr. Trump reversed course a year later, ending an Obama-era program intended to combat racial segregation in the suburbs.)
The problem is that opposition to new housing also has bipartisan agreement. Blue cities full of people who say they want a more equitable society consistently vote to push housing costs onto others. They will vote for higher taxes to fund social programs, but also make sure that whatever affordable housing does get built is built far away from them. Red suburbs full of people who say regulation should be minimal and property rights protected insist that their local governments legislate a million little rules that dictate what can be built where. What does it mean to respect property rights? In zoning fights, it gets fuzzy.
“Normally we think of ownership as determining who has a right to use a piece of property in a certain way,” said Emily Hamilton, an economist and director of the Urbanity Project at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. But when a city tries to add density, she said, it’s common to see this framed “as harming the property rights of people who could experience changes in their neighborhood.”
It’s a distant memory now, but in the weeks before the pandemic shut down the economy, housing policy was having a minor political moment. The field of Democratic presidential candidates, including President Biden, had released a flurry of federal housing proposals that varied in their particulars but revolved around a series of tax breaks, affordable housing funds and promises to encourage intransigent local governments to make it easier to build.