Liberals, Speculation Aversion, and Housing Costs

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  1. Avatar Saul DeGraw says:

    There are other ways this speculation aversion plays out. There is a general truth that rich people still tend to be heavily Republican but richer states tend to be Democratic.

    I wonder if this is because Democratic-Liberal types are simply not that interested in being entrupenurial and starting their own businesses. They want to live comfortably but they tend to do so by becoming upper-middle class professionals like lawyers, doctors, designers, engineers, therapists, architects, or small but profitable business owners of high-end boutiques. I know a lot of liberals who do own their own businesses but they aren’t always interested in growth. These businesses are more like being a solo professional of some sort (lawyer, doctor, dentist) or a small but high end store like an art gallery, a chocolate store, a nice bar, or a clothing boutique. They enjoy being their own boss but don’t seem to relish the idea of being the employer of many people or dreaming of a huge business empire. The liberal dream is to be a Mast Brothers Chocolate, not a Hershey’s or a Dogfish Head instead of a Coors Light. So you are going for quality over quantity in many ways.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      See my below response. I think a significant part of it is that the wealthy states tend to have a lot of not-wealthy people in them who are squeezed by the combination of Other Wealthy People and land scarcity. Being highly concerned about inequality makes a lot more sense in Seattle than it does in Couer d’Alene, where someone else’s wealth is likely to affect you less. (Though the people in CdA do complain about rich Californians moving in, the complaints tend more towards cultural and political rather than the wealth.)

      A lot of factors at play, of course, including especially social issues. But I think the above is important.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

        This is probably true as well. SF and NYC have a lot of people who make very little money or make a lot of money but not many inbetween.

        Though I am interested in what I call the rise of the quality brand. There are food services in liberal cities that do expand to each other but do so in micro numbers. Portland’s Pok Pok has a Brooklyn outpost. Stumptown Roasters has a NYC outpost as does San Francisco’s Blue Bottle Coffee. Shake Shack expanded beyond their original “shack” in Madison Square Park but these businesses are still really into quality control and don’t want to expand beyond their ability to produce a quality product and they don’t want to scale like Burger King or McDonalds. At least not yet.Report

  2. Avatar Will Truman says:

    I think the article overlooks something significant: Reverse causality.

    Which is to say it looks at the way that liberals might drive up housing costs. But I think the alternative is also significant: Higher housing costs encourage liberalism, as do things that that often accompany higher housing costs (like density).

    I think Build Build Build is necessary, but at best it can alleviate the pain. Ultimately, I think the solution is decentralization so that fewer people have to live in a lot of these expensive places.

    Scott Sumner has a piece that amused me. It’s ostensibly about tax rates in Kansas, but includes this amusing PS:

    PPS. Matt Yglesias and Ryan Avent and Paul Krugman are right; the coastal areas need to build much more housing. People want to live in California despite the horrible state government. That’s why their housing prices are so high. Instead people are forced into places like the Great Plains. And that’s a crying shame. (Did I mention that I plan to retire in CA?)

    I say, of course, that there’s nothing wrong with living on the Great Plains. Eat your dang vegetables. But I completely understand why people want otherwise (and given my druthers, all other things equal, so would I!). It’s just that even with BuildBuildBuild making room in San Francisco for everyone who’d like to live in San Francisco isn’t particularly achievable.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

      You are probably right that some areas will always be high demand and supply will never be able to meet demand like New York and San Francisco. A friend just moved to Philadelphia to be with her boyfriend and she remarked about how much cheaper rent and housing was. You can buy a house in Philadelphia for the costs of a one bedroom in certain parts of NYC. I also really like Philadelphia*

      I am skeptical about how to achieve decentralization though. What do you mean by it? As I said the reasons that tech is in SF and finance and advertising and media is in NY seem to be largely issues of historical accident. That is just where said industries were founded and where they remained largely. Microsoft is in Washington because Bill Gates is from Washington. Apple is in Silicon Valley because Steve Jobs was from Silicon Valley. Google is in Silicon Valley because Birn and Page met at Stanford.

      Energy is in Texas because it always was.

      I don’t think tax incentives have done or can do much to change these things. Every now and then I meet a conservative who wonders why Google doesn’t move to Wyoming or some place and this always seems like an odd question to me. Google needs highly educated employees and those types of employees tend to prefer activities more associated with the Bay Area or NYC over those usually associated with Wyoming. It is easier to start your business in an area with the amenities already present than hope for them to come.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        I mostly mean satellite expansion. A company in Silicon Valley having a satellite office in Austin. IBM creating jobs in Utah.

        Silicon Valley will always be #1, but that doesn’t make it the only place to put jobs.Report

      • Avatar morat20 says:

        The talent isn’t there. I mean, that’s the long and short of it. Utah? Not exactly where all the CompSci majors and CompEng majors go.

        Austin is actually an example — they’ve got a lot of tech people there, so there are a lot of tech businesses there (software and hardware). Which attracts…more tech people there.

        I live in Houston. I’d have no problems working for Google, but why should Google open an office here — or go through the hassle of having me work entirely by remote — when they’ve got people with my skills right there, able to sit down in their offices and work onsite?

        And Houston does have a sizeable number of techies too (NASA helps…and the oil and gas industry requires a surprising amount).

        And if IBM opened up a Utah office, how many people do you think would want to move from SF to Utah? And why would IBM open up that office, when it’d have to pay to relocate staff because local talent was thin on the ground? Staff that was perfectly happy where they were?Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        Morat, Utah wasn’t a hypothetical any more than Austin was.Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain says:

        Like many western states, there are two Utahs. The Wasatch Front region of Utah has a highly-educated workforce, a large number of tech firms, and Salt Lake City is more liberal than most people think. SLC has sent openly LGBT representatives to the state legislature, and the light rail system has the ninth-largest ridership of light-rail systems in the US. WRT light rail — which I always consider a touchstone issue — the outlying areas are shifting pretty rapidly from “it’s a dangerous boondoggle” to “when are we going to get our extension?”Report

  3. Avatar Chris says:

    You know that Dallas (proper) and Houston are blue cities, right? In red states, to be sure, but they vote blue for the most part. In the last presidential election, Dallas County voted for Obama 57-42, and Houston for Obama 51-48 (which was closer than in 2008).

    I raise this, again, not to be pedantic, but because when you limit yourself to such a limited, binary view of the world, you’re going to miss a lot.Report

    • Avatar Dand says:

      The cities are liberal but metro areas are conservative. It’s the suburbs that generally determine if an area red or blue.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        A state, maybe, but both Dallas and Houston are run fairly liberal. Hell, no one would accuse Austin of being red, but its metro area has obstructed progressive policies more effectively than the suburbs have in Houston.Report

    • Avatar Michael Cain says:

      I like to look at the state legislature seats since they usually provide a finer-grained look than counties (and since Reynolds v. Sims, nearly equal population per district). This map is a nice one for the current makeup in Texas; I wish more states did maps like this.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        Somewhat misleading because Texas’ districts are absurdly gerrymandered. With more rational districting, there’d be more blue.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:


        What is your standard for rationality?Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        Demographics and geography. My congressional district for my last home, a couple miles from downtown Austin, for example, extended from South Austin to the suburbs of Houston. Austin was intentionally divided up so that its relatively blue population would be outweighed by large swaths of outside of Houston and San Antonio, and the hill country and Williamson County. People three hours away, and in a completely different economic region, have a say in who represents us, while folks down the street do not.Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain says:

        That kind of gerrymander is why I prefer the state legislative districts. There are usually a lot more districts, there are often rules in the state constitution that make gerrymanders harder (I don’t know the details in Texas, but in many places splitting districts across city or county boundaries is limited), and a lot of the state-level legislators in both parties don’t want to be saddled with a badly gerrymandered district.Report

  4. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    I don’t think it has much to do with being risk adverse, or at least it doesn’t in Portland. Rather, I think it all comes down to property values.

    I don’t actually know any low income liberals in PDX that are anti-new building; every one I know tends to be either slightly or greatly for it. (And when I talk about low income liberals, I’m talking about, say, a person of color living in a poor neighborhood, not a young white person with a degree in art history who’s underemployed but assumes they’ll be part of the middle class in the next decade.)

    Those low-income liberals, however, have absolutely zero power or say in public policy. The liberals that *do* have power and say tend to be home owners — and in middle and upper-middle class neighborhoods in places with urban growth boundaries, limiting growth creates a quickly and constantly inflating return on real estate investment. (And more cynically, it also pushes the riff-raff that is “the poor” far, far away from where you have to look at it.)

    Liberals in place like Portland and SF don’t discourage growth because they hate speculation; they discourage it because they have already speculated and want to make the best return on that investment.Report

    • Avatar greginak says:

      Somewhat connected to this comment is that in many liberal cities blacks/minorities have plenty of power at the local level. Obviously not PDX but the polices that brought cities to where they are have been influceced by various minorities to a degree.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

      That is certainly an issue as well.

      I see a different aspect of the gentrification fight. I do know or know of lots of low-income radicals (maybe this makes them different on the issue than liberals) who are angry about the changes that are happening to their neighborhoods in NYC and SF. They don’t come out and say it directly but I think their preferred solution would be if people like me stayed in the suburbs instead of moving to the city.

      The truth is that in a nation of 300 million people, it is probably way too easy to cherry pick evidence to prove any point.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

      I do know plenty of middle-class white people who feel like they are being priced out of their preferred neighborhoods or areas because of really, really wealthy people who buy multiple housing units and then leave them fallow.

      This is why people move from Carroll Gardens to the Hudson Valley instead of a less developed or further down part of Brooklyn like Bay Ridge which is still pretty affordable.Report

      • Avatar Don Zeko says:

        Well do the people that feel that way have an empirical basis for their feeling?Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        Other than that just observations about the townhouses in their Brooklyn neighborhoods and which ones are used and not. Which ones have their stoops swept and shoveled after a snowstorm, etc.Report

      • Avatar Don Zeko says:

        Fair enough, but what I’m trying to get at is that absentee owners/renters seems like the sort of thing that can be studied empirically. My gut instinct is that the effect on rents of this sort of thing is probably real but small, but I’d be curious to know if there’s any good research on how much this contributes to the problem.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        Even in our globalized world, the number of people that can afford to be absentee owners/renters is not going to be that great. You need lots of money to rent or afford apartments or houses in multiple Alpha Cities and the number of people that can really afford that is limited. Very few people could afford tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent or other property fees each year.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        The .1 percent of the United States control 22 percent of the economy/money. In the 1970s, the .1 percent controlled 7 percent of the economy. This is a lot of wealth and ability to control and more than I think neo-liberal types want to imagine is true. Even if we expand to the 1 percent of the US, we are still talking about 3 million people What is 1 percent of over 7 billion people? A lot.

        And they doing it for their whole families….so maybe the cousin gets a place to stay or the nephew.Report

      • Avatar North says:

        I’m deeply skeptical that this is a major factor. If large chunks of high end cities housing stock was owned but sitting empty that’d definitly produce a lot of commentary. Note also that this would produce some interesting side effects. They’d be paying full price on taxes etc but they’d be putting zero pressure on utilities and services. It’d essentially be a wealth transfer from the wealthy to the rest.Report

      • Avatar Mo says:

        What is 1 percent of over 7 billion people? A lot.

        @saul-degraw You know who is in the global 1%? 75% of Americans. The income line for the global 1% is $34K/year. To be in the global 0.1% you need an income of $70K. The are not 7 million Russian kleptocrats running around buying up Central Park West addresses.Report

      • Avatar Mo says:

        Should say 65% not 75% of Americans.Report

  5. Avatar j r says:

    A few thoughts:

    – San Francisco I understand, but I’m not sure how much sense it makes to call NY a liberal city. NY has a lot of folks from communities that have historically voted for Democrats, but many of them can be fairly conservative. More importantly, the housing market in NY is primarily a function of the bureaucratic/political interplay between the city and real estate developers, and ideology does not play a very big role. It is politics in the most vulgar sense of the word.

    – I am not sure what you mean when you say “reaction to the housing crisis,” but if you mean the reaction to a shortage of housing, then, yeah, building more units is probably the rational response.

    – I am not seeing where speculation comes into play. If rents are high and there are more people looking for housing than there is housing for rent/sale, then building more units is not really speculation. At least not more than any economic decision that requires you to make some assumptions about the future is speculation. Booms and busts happen when supply and/or demand is constrained or artificially inflated for some reason and imbalances develop. In real estate, there are some artificial demand boosts, like all the foreign money looking to use Manhattan condos as the new Swiss bank account, but for the most part that demand is composed of real people looking for somewhere to live. And the supply constraints are almost always related to regulations. And that takes us back to the reason that real estate developers and local politicians tend to have very cozy relationships.Report

  6. Avatar James Hanley says:

    Liberals generally care about the environment and think that sprawl might lower prices but we wonder if the environmental costs are too great in the long run.

    That should be prefaced with the modifier “white,” and it reveals one of the cleavages in the Democratic Party.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

      Yes there are white liberals who like environmental issues.

      What is wrong with that?Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        Other than making poor minorities bear the cost of their environmentalism? Nothing. I’m just pointing out that the racial element is an important cleavage in the Democratic Party.Report

    • Avatar zic says:

      For crying out loud.

      Liberal environmental policy has done more to improve the property values and lives of urban people than any housing initiative.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        Rising property values are the problem being discussed.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        Rising property values are both a good and and bad. I grew up on one of the most polluted rivers in the country in the 1960’s and ’70’s, there were communities where the air and water pollution made housing lose value, significantly; houses and cars couldn’t keep a coat of paint for more than a year. Without removing the point-source of that pollution, cleaning it up has improved the quality of life for the people in those neighborhoods. Property values increased, but they’re still next to a giant mill that dominates the landscape, the values are still way below normal. The increase that did happen? It was not bad; it meant that the homes weren’t about to be abandoned because the area was inhabitable.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        Environmentalism is a mixed bag all around. Rising property values is almost entirely good or bad, depending on if you own property or not.

        Some exceptions, such as if you’re an owner who can’t afford the taxes or a non-owner involved in development, but it mostly holds.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        Anyway, while it is different in more depressed areas, the more expensive the place, the less concern we should have about preserving or raising property values.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        Well, Hanley said, Other than making poor minorities bear the cost of their environmentalism?

        The worst pollution impacted poor neighborhoods, and forcing industry to deal with the pollution they were making improved the lives of people in those neighborhoods dramatically. This happened.Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        If property values go up because a place is less poisoned, less dirty, less covered in smog then it seems like a solid win. Maybe it is more expensive but that is because its better. Poor people certainly benefit from a healthier environment. There are plenty of criticisms of the enviro movement but formally dirty/unhealthy places becoming cleaner and more expensive seems like really weak tea.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

        @will-truman @james-hanley

        What Zic and Greginak said. People began moving back to certain areas of NYC and other former industrial areas in the Northeast as places like the Staten Island Landfill and the Gowanus Canal were cleaned up and stopped being super-friend sites.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        Greg, yes but property values are in that sort of case an indicator of good things (in this case, environmental improvement) rather than a good thing in itself (unless you own your home).Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        Whether environmentalism is worth the cost or not – or whether there is a cost – depends almost entirely on the specifics.Report

      • Avatar zic says:


        You usually take the time to inform yourself.

        The specifics are out there, they’re fact, these things happened. Liberal environmental legislation made the lives of millions of poor people better. Lead paint and gasoline. Carcinogens in water supplies. Asbestos.

        All the snide snarky liberal bashing in the world will not change the simple fact that environmental legislation — liberal environmental policies — improved people’s lives, and it improved the lives of the poor for more than the lives of the rich. I lived though it, I saw it first hand. And it is a success that I’m very proud of, the reason I’m a liberal in the first place.

        I don’t really care if you or James don’t like liberals. But neither of you can get away with this shitty game of claiming that liberal environmental passes the cost along to the poor without expecting a very strong challenge from me, because the charge is narrow, bigoted, and fails to embrace the actual facts that happened on the ground. Your life is better because of liberal environmental policy. Your daughter’s life is better.

        And I’m proud of that.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        I’m not doubting the specifics of the story you tell.

        I will admit to a degree of skepticism because, in the various places I’ve lived, over and over again I’ve seen “environmental impact” as the go-to argument for whatever it is you don’t want built. But I’m certainly not saying it’s never justified.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        @will-truman That is not ‘environmental policy,’ that’s nimbyism.

        There’s a difference.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        One tends to hide behind the other. The broader the environmental protections, the more cover the NIMBYists have. Which by no means translates to environmentalism perpetually being on the wrong side of the argument, but it does lead me to take a less benign view of environmental arguments preventing development than I might otherwise have. (Though, to be fair, I do bring some baggage to the conversation more generally, and I recognize that.)Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        I didn’t think my point was so fine that it was that easy to miss.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        Oh, hell, what am I thinking? I violated the League’s unwritten rule against criticizing liberals again, so of course nobody’s going to pay attention to what I’m actually sayingReport

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        but it does lead me to take a less benign view of environmental arguments preventing development than I might otherwise have.

        Why? I mean, you can read the environmental report on your own and arrive at your own conclusion about the policy. Why let your opinion of *that policy* be determined by punishing folks for being hypocrites when the actual issue has nothing to do with folks’ disingenuousness?Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        You criticize liberals here all the time. It’s a nervous tic, far as I can tell.

        But suggesting that liberal environmental policies shift a burden onto poor people, when the fact is that liberal environmental policy has significantly improved the lives of poor people in poor, industrial and down-stream neighborhoods is just outright nonsense.

        Now if you want to go there with zoning, which rests on environmental policy, I’ll leave it be. But local zoning is not environmental policy. Environmental policy rests on ppm/ppb of NOX in the air; it rests on the temperature of water outflow from a treatment plant. The size of particulate matter. The plant composition of a wetland.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        Because time is a finite resource?Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Well, sure. Have at it. Find a liberal enemy then reject the policies they advocate simply because *they* advocate them. You can call yourself a conservative!

        Oh, I know that’s not true, Will. I kid!Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        I’ve never claimed to be neutral on environmental issues.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        this shitty game of claiming that liberal environmental passes the cost along to the poor without expecting a very strong challenge from me, because the charge is narrow, bigoted, and fails to embrace the actual facts that happened on the ground.

        Oh, I didn’t see this. Lovely. Just lovely. But this does happen to be one of my specialties, and the unfortunate fact is that zic is misreading me and being quite shallowly ideological.

        The reality is that environmental policy is a significant fault line between white middle-class liberals and urban black liberals. Yes, there’s such a thing as environmental racism, and yes cleaning up polluted urban environments is good for all who live there. If that was the whole of it, zic would have a decent position. But that’s not the whole of it.

        Middle-class white environmentalists (like me, actually) aren’t focusing just on urban industrial pollution that’s harming poor communities of color. Most of their focus is on “natural” or “wild” issue such as protecting spotted owls, preserving the Grand Staircase-Escalante wilderness, preserving wetlands from development, and the like. Urban black Democrats mostly don’t give a damn about those things.

        That type of environmentalism is a luxury good, in the technical sense of the word. That’s why the support for environmental organizations comes predominantly from the upper middle class–they’re the ones with disposable income to dedicated toward environmental causes. But the environmental issues upper middle class whites care about tend to be different than the environmental issues lower class minorities care about.

        Consider Barack Obama. He’s provided precious little leadership on environmental issues beyond a little bit of lip service about climate change. It’s not been surprising to me at all, because he’s a Chicago Democrat. While white liberals want to save endangered species, Chicago non-white liberals want to save endangered kids.

        Now, let’s focus on the actual comment I was originally responding to. It had to do with urban sprawl–not spotted owls, and not industrial waste. As Saul made clear, liberals worry about the environmental effects of urban sprawl–white liberals, for the most part. Urban blacks worry about housing prices and for the most part couldn’t care less if housing developments eat up farm land, fill in some wetlands, and destroy the habitat of a rare toad.

        When white liberal environmentalist concern about sprawl leads to increased housing costs, driving out poorer minorities, there’s a party cleavage there, and white liberals’ anti-sprawl preferences are paid for by poor people, including poor minorities.

        zic wants to simply that into me just attacking liberals. That’s pretty funny given that I’m one of those middle class white environmentalists myself. I’m not surprised, though. It’s become par for the course with zic.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

        To be fair, @james-hanley, you are trying to deny women access to wetlands.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        OK. Given that, to what extent does your anti-environmentalism result from a consideration of the policies rather than a consideration of the types of people who support those policies?Report

      • Avatar Trumwill says:

        SW, hard to say for sure, but since the same people with which I tend to disagree in environmental issues I tend to agree with on other issues, I don’t think I’m too blinkered on it. And even on environmental issues specifically, I’m not party line, even if I’d be lying if I said I was neutral.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        I’m not surprised, though. It’s become par for the course with zic.

        And this crap is par of Hanley. Constantly telling people how they are and how they behave and then getting all whiney when they tell him how he’s behaving.

        I’ve been collecting them. The list is huge.

        I spent most of the day working — that’s volunteer working — at a non-profit seminar to help engage young people in our community with volunteer activities. I’ve known most of the other people that were there for a long time, now. Worked with them on numbers of efforts; many environmental because I have deep interest there. Like I said, I grew up on the shores of one of the most polluted rivers in the United States (made the top 10 list when they adopted the Clean Water Act).

        Those people put their efforts into numbers of areas. Wildlife habitat is certainly one. They also work hard at having a voice in crafting environmental policy. These are not single-issue, save-the-whale people; that’s just what gets popular attention and raises uninformed people’s awareness that there is at least an issue.

        But I think you’re also wrong about what urban poor people want; they want air that doesn’t cause their kids to have asthma. They want clean water. I recently read about the efforts of residents of Chicago’s South Side to deal petcoke storage facilities on the Calumet River.

        So everything you’re arguing is just liberal bashing and does not reflect what actually happens. Yes, there are faddish movements. But that is does not comprise liberal environmental policy, and liberal environmental policy has done a lot of good, most particularly for people living in poor neighborhoods. It’s a record to be proud of, and a work in progress. And I will defend it, and I really don’t care if that peeves you.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        and white liberals’ anti-sprawl preferences are paid for by poor people, including poor minorities.

        Well, they’re not *paid* for by the poor: those policies aren’t paid for by anyone, seems to me, except insofar as taxes must be collected to zone/regulate/inspect/etc all the accompanying b***shit that goes along with those types of policies. But those costs are born by the tax payers as collectively (maybe disproportionately more falls on the rich depending on how those taxes are levied).

        Maybe the better way to say it is that the poor incur a cost resulting from those policies. The rents get too damn high. I”m not sure there’s a solution to the problem of the poor. As a Prof friend once told me quoting another wise fellow: the poor will always be with us.

        But part of a market is that developers will build to cater to the existing market. As far as I can tell, low income housing opportunities for the poor (other than the marketmatrix default) only exist as a result of gummint subsidy anyway. Unless we’re talking about ruralia, that is.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        Environmental policy rests on ppm/ppb of NOX in the air; it rests on the temperature of water outflow from a treatment plant. The size of particulate matter. The plant composition of a wetland.

        No, zic, environmental policy is much broader than that. It includes cattle grazing on public lands, urban agriculture in former brownfields, depletion of New England fisheries, offshore wind power, congestion pricing of traffic in cities, managing municipal solid waste landfills, logging on public lands, choices between command-and-control or market-based mechanisms, and–yes–urban sprawl that eats up undeveloped land (if we count ag land as undeveloped) and promotes a car culture and the oil use and air pollution that comes with it.

        I know all this because this is one of my areas that I teach regularly, and I’ve got a good number of environmental policy and politics textbooks sitting on my shelf and I can show you a chapter in one or another of those books on every one of those topics. And I wasn’t simply attacking liberals, but pointing out a very real cleavage among liberals that’s been common knowledge among political observers for at least a generation now.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:


        to what extent does your anti-environmentalism result from

        Are you talking to me?

        Well, they’re not *paid* for by the poor:

        Sure, they are. If the poor bear costs because of them, they’re paying for them. If you’re thinking of “paid for” as just meaning cash out of pocket, whether in taxes or elsewhere, you’re missing my meaning.

        That’s not to say that only the poor pay.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:


        This isn’t an attack on liberals.

        Grow up, please.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        James, the first comment you quoted was to Will.

        Regarding the second…. man, I’m disappointed. I thought that comment contained so much more than what you responded to. For one thing, to say the poor bear a cost is to say that everyone bears a cost for everything. Eg, for all those outsourcedoffshored jobs consistent with free trade. If you mean to highlight the mechanism that incurs that cost, then you oughta do a better job of it, since from my pov people preferring stuff is part and parcel of market and FREE markets. (Is the complaint that gummint facilitates low density policies? If so, then *that* would be the compelling point to me, not just that group X bears the costs of group Y’s actions.)Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        Grazing policies are based on the how many head of cattle a given amount of land can support. That’s also science, based on water supply, native flora and fauna populations (including rare and engangered species), etc. There’s a whole art to that; generally called best management practices, and there are BMP guidelines (often for things that are not regulated) published for just about every type of land use out there. They are constantly revised. Some, not all, are regulated, and much varies by state law.

        It’s still based on actual science and existing law, not on somebody’s fuzzy feelings about pretty animals or ranchers using Federal Lands.

        But I’m now curious, since you continue to dig in, what the hell does grazing policy have to do with environmental policy costs driving up housing costs for poor people?Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:


        I honestly don’t get your complaint, but I’d prefer not to follow it up. That’s not about you and isn’t meant to be dismissive of you. I’m just soured on this conversation because another commenter insists on making it solely about ideology.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Dude, I get that. No worries. Maybe we’ll pick it up later on another thread. It’s something I’m actually quite interested in discussing.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        It’s all good.

        I’ll concede.

        James, have your blog back. I’m out. Been nice knowing most of you.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        razing policies are based on the how many head of cattle a given amount of land can support. That’s also science, based on water supply, native flora and fauna populations (including rare and engangered species), etc. There’s a whole art to that; generally called best management practices, and there are BMP guidelines (often for things that are not regulated) published for just about every type of land use out there. They are constantly revised. Some, not all, are regulated, and much varies by state law.

        Thank you for the lesson in things I teach regularly. I’m not sure why you felt the need, but if you really want to talk about public lands grazing, it’s actually one of my pet issues, and ever since I moved from the west back to the midwest I can’t find many people interested in discussing it.

        But I’m now curious, since you continue to dig in, what the hell does grazing policy have to do with environmental policy costs driving up housing costs for poor people?

        I never implied it did. But you said,
        local zoning is not environmental policy. Environmental policy rests on ppm/ppb of NOX in the air; it rests on the temperature of water outflow from a treatment plant. The size of particulate matter. The plant composition of a wetland.

        And I was just pointing out that your perspective on environmental policy is incomplete. Environmental policy covers a much wider range of things than you listed, not only including public lands grazing, but also issues of urban sprawl.

        Sprawl leads to more road-building, which often destroys local wildlife habitats. It leads to more commuting, which increases pollution. It leads to–or perhaps we should say consists of–more home building on previously undeveloped areas.

        I’m rather surprised at your confusion, because I’ve never before met a self-described environmentalist who didn’t immediately recognize urban sprawl as an environmental issue.

        Environmental policy also incorporates concern for the human environment. Of course some environmentalists are strong advocates for denser housing, because of their concern for minimizing impact on the natural environment, but many middle and upper middle class liberals oppose too much urban density because they see it as creating a negative environment for humans.

        All of this is standard, very textbook and not controversial.

        I really don’t get why you find the idea of cleavages within a party outrageous. They exist in both our major parties, in spades. Americans don’t naturally clump into two groups within which there is overwhelming agreement–the two parties are artefacts of our electoral system. Give us a pure proportional system and you’ll see several other parties appear in strength (or current third parties grow stronger as they pull off more of the major parties’ supporters). The Dems have long had a minorities-environmentalists-labor-social liberals conglomeration that sometimes works well and sometimes doesn’t. Reagan was able to exploit those cleavages, for example.

        You seem to want to interpret everything I say as just an attack on liberals. I’m going to tell you bluntly that’s very simplistic and ideological, and as long as you do so you’re going to be misinterpreting me.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:


        Of course some environmentalists are strong advocates for denser housing, because of their concern for minimizing impact on the natural environment, but many middle and upper middle class liberals oppose too much urban density because they see it as creating a negative environment for humans.

        Is that still the case? I vaguely remember it being considered to be the case when I was young, but the tide seemed to turn on the subject. Most of the opposition I see from liberals to density tend to come in different forms, usually specific to a proposal. (Along the lines of “I support increased density, but you can’t do it there…” and “there” ends up covering a whole lot of places, for one reason or another.)Report

  7. Avatar Roger says:

    Gotta stop those junkies on a bender trying to make a risky return meeting housing demand!

    In studying history one thing that always stands out is how those that “have” try to create barriers for those coming along behind by creating restrictions. Certainly there is a confluence of interests. By creating barriers to new housing we can
    1)protect the local environment (hell with the longer commutes of the larger environment NIMBY!!),
    2) reduce local traffic ( at the expense of larger picture),
    3) keep out the people different than me, and
    4) boost up the value of my single largest asset.
    5) oh and send a message of our moral superiority to speculators?

    I understand there is a role for regulation. However entrance barriers are becoming the dominant form of human exploitation or harm. A good thing in moderation can be used to screw over fellow humans.

    Five hundred years ago the barbarians would exploit others by sacking cities, killing the men and raping the girls. Now rich socialites just pass building restrictions, workers price competitors out of the market, and corporations lobby for entrance barriers.

    People have conflicts of interest. One way to gain personally at the expense of others is via rationalized entrance barriers. I assume this makes sense to progressives, but I am not sure why it doesn’t seem to bother them enough to change.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

      My big issue is not with the speculation but with the aftermath when the bubble bursts (and it always does). The aftermath always seems to be minimum punishment for the people really driving the speculation like bankers and developers and maximum pain for everyday people who just do their jobs (often support or low-ranked employees).

      The bankers and developers seemed to have found a way where they don’t get punished in anyway shape or form for their speculation. They don’t suffer reputational blows in the Industry or fines or fiscal problems (because letting too many big banks go under would really fuck up the economy).

      So a bubble bursts and a lot of people lose their jobs through no fault of their own but then they receive moralizing and hectoring lectures on tightening your belt and why unemployment insurance is a moral hazard and that really makes me fume.

      I am not against growth or even rapid growth. I am all for trying to think about how to get out of boom bust cycles and creating a culture that does not put the burden of recessions and depressions on those who did nothing to cause said recessions and depressions.Report

      • Avatar Roger says:

        Thanks for the reply, Saul.

        The fact that speculators are bailed out or protected from their mistakes is indeed an abomination. When we socialize costs and privatize benefits we create a form of organized (legalized) crime. Lenders should never have been required to make low collateral loans to risky people. And lenders should never have been able to pass on all the risks. Lenders, investors and regulators all should have been on the hook for their stupidity.

        The fact that we are massively interfering with market feedback mechanisms is an odd excuse though for even more interference (not that I am suggesting you are making this case) It is of course a good rationalization for NIMBY regulation, and that is the central issue here. It isn’t eliminating the building of housing on a larger scale. It is limiting it locally that is the issue.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater says:


      Those policies might also prevent overtaxing aging urban infrastructure and furthering the strain on overburdened resource allocations: water, electricity, streets & thoroughfares, sanitation, sewage, potentially even things like school systems, etc etc. Once upon a time I lived in a small town here on the Colorado front range that had dreams of getting big. THe twon council adopted the developers wet dream as policy, so … lots of building permits were sold. Unfortunately, the new growth required an entirely new water treatment plant (as well as purchasing more water rights, which aint cheap here in Co). At the end of it, folks in town and surrounding saw their low-use water bills triple. That’s just one example in a long list, no?Report

      • Avatar Roger says:

        Yea, I agree @stillwater

        There are legitimate conflicts of interest between incumbents and new entrants which need to be managed, and politics and regulations are two ways of doing so. California has something called Mello Roos fees for new communities to ensure they carry their own weight.Report

  8. Avatar Stillwater says:

    In News that should be absolutely unsurprising to anyone, liberal metro areas are not affordable to the middle class but Research from the real estate site Truila found that the bluest cities have building regulation policies that are most likely to drive up housing costs.

    THis is like a Yogi Bera-ism: “No one lives in those neighborhoods anymore, the prices are too high.”

    Comments like this make me think that the term “middle class” needs a more precise definition. Back in the day, the upper class was pretty clearly defined as the (oh, let’s just say) 1%ers. But if entire metro areas are too expensive for the middle class, I’m left wondering which class is in fact purchasing those homes. Has the upper class’s lower limit taken a dive recently?Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      Cities can be disproportionately populated by the wealthy and the poor with the middle class commuting in from elsewhere.

      Typically, though, when people talk of middle class in this context, they are thinking of families with kids. I think middle class couples without kids can and do afford it.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


      I think @will-truman brings up some good points. If someone is childless and makes between 40K-90K, they can probably hold on in a city. It is when they have kids that they need to move to the suburbs.

      Here is the general definition of the middle class that I get from the articles I read about gentrification and people being priced out. The articles usually feature stories about people with decent paying pink-collar or blue-collar jobs. The women tend to be middle-aged paralegals or admin assistants. The men work as electricians, plumbers, construction workers, building supervisors, etc. There are plenty of people with college educations who are also priced out but maybe it is harder to feel sympathy for said people. The people featured also tend to be San Franciscans or New Yorkers of several generations so there is a feeling of a city that was once more gritty, more real, more vibrant instead of a shiny plaything for the college educated.

      As for gentrification, people began buying Brownstones in South Brooklyn during the 1960s and 70s because you could get them cheap. Park Slope began getting nice in the 1980s but still only the most enterprising of new college New Yorkers moved to Brooklyn back then. You still moved to Manhattan if you were new to the city. Sometime around the late 1990s and early aughts more people began looking in Brooklyn because Manhattan was too pricey (unless you lived way uptown) and you got more bang for your buck in Brooklyn. I would say sometime circa 2005, it just became the de facto thing for people moving to New York (especially recent college grads) to just start looking in Brooklyn and Astoria/LIC (Queens) first and largely ignoring Manhattan.Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      I wonder if these cities are too expensive for the middle class, or too expensive for them to live in what they see as middle class homes. My suspicion, based on what’s happening here, is that it’s the latter.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        I think it’s a combination of the two, and more. I think people in the second group end up making things more difficult for people in the first group. But a lot of “I can’t afford…” does actually revert back to “I am not willing to make the sacrifices to…” on closer inspection.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        As you might expect, I have very little sympathy for the latter. Especially when it is accompanied by as much whining as it seems to be lately.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        I concur… to an extent. The second-order effects are significant. And if people won’t move in for even what you consider to be illegitimate reasons, it still matters on a social level.

        It could be said to be a good thing. If they did start moving in at high rates, it would increase pricing pressure and the poorer residents would be displaced.

        On the other hand, a solid middle class tax base is important. If we don’t hold housing levels at a constant, the results could be beneficial. Units being built for them would have less local opposition, and what’s built for them could provide more landing spots for people who are currently down-market but don’t want to leave the area.

        Personally, I have an allergy to expensive places. Beyond the point of rationality. So a part of me looks at situations like SF’s with bemusement. And there is a sense of entitlement that I find rather obnoxious. And yet… I do think their relative absence might be causing problems on a broader level, both in the cities in question and outside of them.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        I have no doubt that it will cause problems. We haven’t reached a point in Austin where we see many of them, but we’ve seen some, as right now we mostly see working class families being priced into poorer neighborhoods and suburbs, and the middle-middle class increasingly into the rental market and the other suburbs (2 of the 3 fastest growing cities in the country in 2013 were Austin suburbs), as the real estate market skews more and more to the upper middle class. The middle-middle moving into the rental market, particularly all the young people moving here with high paying tech jobs, has caused rental prices to increase dramatically, resulting in the forced movement of the working class. Gentrification is also rampant on much of the East Side. People moving to the suburbs in droves has exacerbated what was already one of the worst traffic situations in the country, causing the city to rush transportation initiatives that are poorly planned, and will inevitably hurt poor and working class people dependent on public transportation. Homelessness is being ignored again (an old problem in Austin), or worse targeted, as expensive developments move into areas with a large homeless presence, and neighborhoods around the city center zoned primarily or exclusively for single-family homes are seeing huge increases in property values while fighting development that could ease housing costs and traffic elsewhere. Developers are also increasingly catering to upper middle class residents (multi-story, often mixed-use buildings with luxury condos are popping up everywhere), which means that even increases in density aren’t helping housing costs, with pressure not trickling but rushing down.

        The schools are flush with property tax dollars, though.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Good comment @chris. THis is the type of thing I was getting at in a comment elsewhere on this thread: that higher density isn’t the solution to the problem of available cheap housing for the since development, by definition, is responsive to market opportunities which, in cities like Austin, means catering to the higher end. I’ve never heard of a low income development targeting the poor that wasn’t subsidized by gummint. I’m sure there’s an example out there (well …) but such a thing is almost incoherent from a market-based pov. Also, as you mention, increasing density creates or exacerbates existing infrastructure problems that may not be easily resolved.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        To fill that comment out a bit …

        In Boulder, land prices make it just about impossible for new construction to price individual units within reach of “the poor” (which in Boulder is a bit higher than most folks definition of that term, I’d think). On the other hand, the City has all sorts of subsidies (and accompanying regulations/constraints) to encourage development with that “affordability” as a target. I’m not sure exactly what the numbers are on either end of things, but I do know that lots of developers have tried to work with the city to build “low” income housing and given up since they can’t make any money at it. It would effectively amount to a donation on their part. So they build to cater to the higher income folks, which is where the money is.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        development, by definition, is responsive to market opportunities

        Only when they’re allowed to be. When they try, they are often met with resistance. People object a lot more to poor people moving into their neighborhood than they do not-poor-people.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:


        Check this out. I’m a big fan of this stuff, actually. Micro homes on wheels, too.

        I’m not sure this solves the problem of “low income housing” given the reported rent rates, but it certainly resolves some of the housing crunchiness.

        Also, I used to live in a 120 square foot converted tool shed here on the front range. It was some of the best living I ever experienced.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Well, sure. I mean, not to get too finegrained about this, but I thought we were talking about housing for the poor, not a bunch of hipsters who think mirco housing is cool. And micro housing *is* cool. (I liven in a 120 sq. ft. converted tool room for two years here on the front range. I was into it waaaaaay before it became cool!)

        Also, check out this link

        with special attention to the expected rent rates. Is that a solution to the problem of housing for the poor?

        I dunno. Like Saul, I have no idea what any of these class labels mean anymore.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        I’ve got a comment in moderation that I re-wrote cuz I thought it got lost in space. One of em’s got to go the way of whiskey sticks.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        To be fair, those micro-apartments aren’t just “cool”… they’re 25% less expensive than studios. Let’s let developers build more units like that! It’s far from clear to me that developers are only interested in serving upmarket, when microapartments are indicative of the opposite of that.

        I don’t see Build Build Build as the solution that’s actually going to solve it. The land scarcity being what it is, I don’t see that much of anything can, other than pointing out that there are places to live other than San Fransisco.

        The bigger fight, though, isn’t in San Francisco but the suburbs, most likely. Where cities are actively combating multi-unit housing. Housing that would, by your standards or mine, be awfully expensive. But would probably be less expensive than the alternatives offered.

        Anyway, I find it unconvincing to argue that the market has spoken against small and more affordable units, when (local) government entities are actively working to prevent their construction.

        Incidentally, I lived in a micro-apartment once. It was a hellhole. I didn’t live there cause it was small, or to live in the cool part of town. I lived there because it was $300/mo with utilities paid (including “high speed” internet) when the alternatives were more.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        I say let em build those units too. Within reason and etc. Sure. Let em go!

        It’s far from clear to me that developers are only interested in serving upmarket, when microapartments are indicative of the opposite of that.

        Well, not the opposite of that. I never claimed developers serve upmarket interests, I said they respond to market opportunities. If this is one they respond to, it’s because they feel they can make more money (all other things being equal) than building a complex of two bedroom units or even studios.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        Related: I met a woman in NE Indiana, who wanted to build an 800 square foot house. It’s not a real wealthy area, but it is lake country, so there’s some attraction to wealth, and a consequent desire to keep property values up. The end result is that she couldn’t get permits to build a house of less than 1200 sq. ft.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        Austin is currently in one of its most chaotic and strangest election seasons ever. The structure of the city council is going to be strictly place-based for the first time, so there are 78 candidates running for 10 spots, and there will a new mayor. On top of that, there’s a $1 billion (plus a potential $600 mil in federal matching funds) transportation bond measure.

        Affordability and traffic are the only big issues the major candidates are talking about (I’ve had a couple extended Twitter exchanges with one of the two main mayoral candidates on the latter), and everyone seems to think something needs to be done about overly restrictive zoning, just not in the neighborhood they want to represent.

        In the end, the council will give nice deals to luxury developers in growth areas, protect single-family home areas, and prices will continue to push outward people who can’t afford fast-rising prices. Same as it ever was.

        I can’t imagine Austin’s that different from any other growing city in 2014, liberal or conservative. Both of those words translate to “money.” Which means those without it will get screwed hard.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

        @will-truman @stillwater

        I think when people talk about cities no longer being affordable, they mean for families. So mom, dad, and one or two kids. These are families where the parents work as teachers, admin assistants, nurses truck drivers, firefighters, paralegals, warehouse supervisors, etc. They are not thinking about families where one or both parents are lawyers or doctors.

        I’ve never seen anyone approach the microapartment movement as being for families. I’ve always seen it pitched as being for people between the ages of 22-25 but maybe some elderly people will live there.

        So Microapartments might help young people from being priced out but no family is going to live in them.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        Microapartments can have secondary effects. By allowing singles to live in smaller quarters, you free up more space for families. It might also lead to fewer housing situations like my sisters-in-law’s, where you have multiple people rooming together in what would be a great family apartment.

        But to some extent, you’re quite right. So for families, maybe we should look less at microapartments and more at trailer parks.Report

  9. Avatar Damon says:

    Let’s not forget that a lot of blue cities have strong rent control policies.

    That alone depresses the market for rental properties.Report

  10. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    You can have low-housing costs and little to no sprawl at the same time. You just need to allow housing density to be high. Paris is about the same size of San Francisco but it holds over two million people while San Francisco has a population of under a million. If you really care for the environment than the best choice is to have a lot of people live in a limited area as possible.

    I’d also point out that many liberal cities sprawl plenty. According to Wikipedia, Portland, Oregon covers 145 square miles but has a population under 600,000. Seattle has a land area of 84 square miles and a population slightly over 600,000 square miles. Chicago is about the same size of the five boroughs of New York but with a fraction of the population. Oakland, the Brooklyn of the Bay Area, has a land area of 56 square miles and a population of 406,000. Boston, New York, and San Francisco might be dense but their metropolitan areas cover large geographic areas.

    The real reason why liberal cities are expensive is because the housing isn’t dense enough. If a greater density of housing was allowed than housing costs would be lower. The real reason why liberal cities don’t allow for high housing density is self-interested NIMBYism from long term residents masked as concern over the environment or historical preservation. However, increasing density is actually better for the environment because it saves more space for wilderness.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

      Some questions:

      1. Do you think cities should be able to use eminent domain to purchase private property, raise it, and make denser and higher housing?

      2. How high is reasonable to go in an Earthquake probe area? Is it cool to have a 40 story tower and a wait and see approach for how said 40 story towers handle Earthquakes?Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        Japan is one of the most earthquake prone countries in the world and their cities have some very impressive high rises. Modern technology is capable of building things that can withstand a lot of abuse from nature.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        As to one, no. That would be too troublesome and legally problematic. They should allow private builders to turn low density to medium or high density buildings with greater ease though.Report

      • Avatar North says:

        #1 You don’t need to have government use eminent domain to purchase land and build dense housing. Government in liberal cities is usually the one either actively blocking or actively disincenting dense housing. It just needs to stop.

        #2 There are plenty of earthquake prone areas with dense housing and it’s plenty denser San Francisco.Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain says:

        I think what the cities fear is the class-action lawsuits from the owners who argue that changing the zoning to allow higher density — or even worse, to force high density — will decrease the value of their property: more crowded schools, more traffic on the roads, higher tax levies to expand infrastructure, resulting in lower property values. Eminent domain doesn’t mean they can take the land for nothing, it simply means that they can force the owner to accept fair market value for the land. If the courts find that a drastic change in zoning is a taking, it could get very expensive.Report

  11. Avatar Dand says:

    Chicago is about the same size of the five boroughs of New York but with a fraction of the population. Oakland, the Brooklyn of the Bay Area, has a land area of 56 square miles and a population of 406,000. Boston, New York, and San Francisco might be dense but their metropolitan areas cover large geographic areas.

    The real reason why liberal cities are expensive is because the housing isn’t dense enough. If a greater density of housing was allowed than housing costs would be lower. The real reason why liberal cities don’t allow for high housing density is self-interested NIMBYism from long term residents masked as concern over the environment or historical preservation. However, increasing density is actually better for the environment because it saves more space for wilderness.

    NIMBYs aren’t a major problem in Chicago(a rare benefit of corruption) in area where there is strong demand there is plenty of new construction; the density is low because in some parts of the South and West Sides there are blocks at are 90% vacant.

    2. How high is reasonable to go in an Earthquake probe area? Is it cool to have a 40 story tower and a wait and see approach for how said 40 story towers handle Earthquakes?
    @saul-degraw Steal framed skyscrapers are among the most earthquake resistant buildings.Report

  12. Avatar Saul Degraw says:


    I think I would be more okay with exburbs if:

    1. They came with more public transportation instead of being car-utopia. The cartopia is more environmentally concerning than the exurban sprawl possibly.

    2. They did some things to encourage more walkability like being built on an English village line with a commercial core and housing on the outer ring. A lot of older suburbs in the Northeast (and maybe even Northwest) are built along this line. Lee and I used to walk from our house into town on weekends for pizza or burgers and it was quite nice. Nicer than being driven to the mall. I don’t know why this model of town building fell out of fashion and why it is still seemingly disliked on the right-side of the aisle.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:

      OK, that’s all fair. I’m just not sure what I’ve said that it’s a response to.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

        I thought you wrote something about exurbs above and now I can’t find it…

        Never mind.

        I am still curious about the dislike for the English village mode of town building.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        If I’d done urban policy I might be able to say something intelligent about that, but since I didn’t, I can’t. I can only say that personally I like the old style, and I despise modern suburban tracts with their perfectly curved roads and houses all set back precisely the same distance from the street.

        However as a midwesterner, I do tend to like grid patterns, particularly out in the country where well-behaved roads are set precisely one mile apart, so precisely that you can check your odometer by them.

        But for walking, yes, nothing beats the old village style.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        Car oriented suburbia gives people much more space and privacy. Thats what more people want than walkability. Walkability requires sacrificing space because people can only travel so far by using their feet or bikes.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:


        True. And from that I conclude that other peoples’ wants are wrong and should not be allowed to be the basis of public policy.Report

  13. Avatar North says:

    What it basically boils down to, in my mind, is that NIMBYism is universal. It is, however, a lamentable fact that some things that Liberals value (stricter control over building, certain kinds of boutique environmentalism and historical preservation) and especially the instruments that Liberals like to use to achieve those values are more vulnerable to capture and exploitation by self-interested NIMBY elements.

    NIMBY’s all want to freeze the neighborhoods they bought into in amber. NIMBY’s in liberal cities just have more tools to use to achieve it. And then, ironically, they support band aid programs like rent control that compound the problem to assuage their guilt on the matter which makes the housing problems worse.Report

    • Avatar Roger says:

      Finally a comment back on the real topic. Well said, North.

      Someone above diverted the topic from NIMBY type regulations which creates entrance and building barriers to broad scale environmentalism. Then mud was slung around the diversion.

      Speaking broadly (to everyone) As I stated somewhere above, it is natural to want less building nearby, to want to keep out people different than ourselves, to preserve the natural spaces alongside our property, to desire better building codes on new neighbors and so forth. But these barriers also have social costs and can be used to enrich ourselves at the expense of newcomers. This is wrong. It makes society worse off if taken to excess, and in many cities it is taken way beyond excess. Incumbents are using regulations to enrich themselves at the expense of those not yet arriving.

      Here is the thing about democratic exploitation. It almost always has a rationale. Nobody can just concoct a scheme to increase property values by hundreds of thousands of dollars and arbitrarily keep others out. But rationalizations are not hard to come by. Over time they multiply and the effects are socially destructive.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        But these barriers also have social costs and can be used to enrich ourselves at the expense of newcomers. This is wrong. It makes society worse off if taken to excess, and in many cities it is taken way beyond excess.

        I don’t think it’s at all obvious that it’s wrong. Every market transaction that generates enriches someone comes at the expense of another, so unless *that’s* wrong, then the other isn’t either.

        Maybe your point is the use of gummint to achieve that outcome? If so, that’s a different argument, no?Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        The “at the expense of the other” is contested.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Contest away.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        Many market transactions do not come at the expense of anybody (or either participant, anyway). When we bought a house, we needed a house and the people who sold it needed to sell a house. So we both win. Maybe we won more than they did, maybe they won more than we did, but we both gained from the transaction.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        So, am I right to say that this argument turns on win-win, positive sum, non-coerced, voluntary transactions?

        Then why isn’t the complaint that coercive gummint regulation is the problem in all this?Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Well, then you’re agreeing with my criticism of Roger’s comment?

        Now I’m really confused.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        Me too. Seems to me Roger and North are complaining about government actions and you’re wondering why they aren’t.

        Where am I misreading you, or vice versa?Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Look, my ciricism of Roger’s comment was that the “enriching someone at another’s expense” part of the argument drops out entirely, since I can enrich myself at your expense by charging you more for an item than I otherwise need to. Or have to, for that matter. So the compelling point isn’t that some folks are enriching themselves at others expense (hell, when plastics manufacturers voluntarily offshore their plants they’re enriching themselves at someone’s expense, etc etc). It’s that gummint is interfering with the *voluntariness* of this enriching-at-other-peoples-expense dynamic.

        I mean, that’s the point, no?

        So why all this moralism about making society worst off?

        Is it possible to construct a scenario in which the desire to live in a neighborhood with lots of open space and large lots and etc actually drives our economy? It’s what makes people work hard, be productive, try to achieve certain financial goals, become job creators!!!, and then spend the excess earnings productively in the community to indirectly support all sorts of other jobs for all those other folks who haven’t won at life’s lottery?Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        Ahhh, gotcha. Thanks for the parenthetical! Otherwise, I’d still be lost.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

        I can enrich myself at your expense by charging you more for an item than I otherwise need to.

        That’s not really true. I mean, I suppose you’re doing so relative to some hypothetical scenario in which you charged less, but it’s not at my expense relative to the baseline, where the transaction never happened at all.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

        Really, by this logic you’re enriching yourself at my expense every time you don’t sell everything you own and send me the proceeds along with your life’s savings.Report

      • Avatar Roger says:

        @stillwater , Brandon, and Will

        The concern I was trying to raise is using regulation to enrich ourselves at the expense of those not yet here (who also have no say in said regulation). In broader terms, it is a form of rent seeking. I think North is saying it better than me.

        I am not using the argument as a blanket statement against regulation, nor does it necessarily reflect malicious intentions. It is quite possible to want lower population densities and a better view and a better class of friends for your kids to play with. The fact that your house value doubles and you price minorities out of the neighborhood may very well be unintended consequences. Or not. I am a consequentialist. The intentions are less important to me that the long term effects.

        Even well intentioned regulations can have harmful side effects. We need to be careful.

        On the broader issue I love seeing the discussion shift to types of harm. I actually roughed out an article a few months ago on the various types of harm (self harm, natural harm, coercive harm, accidental harm, restrictive harm, unfair distribution of costs and benefits, and so forth). Each type of harm has different issues related to it, and in social living we often have to balance them out or even use some types of harm to counter or prevent others.

        The article would shine a light on the discussion between Brandon and Stillwater. One fascinating type of harm is the harm of not being chosen to share in a positive sum (win/win) cooperative arrangement. For example, every time I buy a coke, Pepsi can see this as the harm of not being chosen. And so can every human on earth who would like to make money by selling me refreshments. Every time Brad Pitt choses to dance with Angelina, every other person who hoped to dance with him instead lost an opportunity. If this seems too esoteric, consider being not chosen or even fired from a job. The harm was again the loss of expected gains from cooperation. But the harm can still be real (kids need food)

        Stillwater is referencing this type of harm, along with the similar type of harm of how costs and benefits are apportioned. In a cooperative arrangement, the parties involved have conflicting interests around how the costs and benefits are apportioned. I want the flat screen TV at a penny, and they want to sell it at a million dollars. Every penny each direction could be considered a theoretical harm from this hypothetical or best case position. Again, to make it less esoteric, this is the perceived harm of paying below rather than above a “living wage.”

        There are many different types of harm. Many cannot be eliminated. They can be balanced, managed and understood, along with the ramifications of misunderstanding them.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


      So perhaps the better questions to ask are why NIMBYs want to freeze their hoods in Amber.

      I don’t think this is limited to NIMBYs but might be a more human and psychological value*. Colson Whitehead had an essay in the NY Times right after 9/11. The essay posited that NYC is frozen in people’s minds as it was when they first move to the city. I think this is true and can be expanded to all areas or other cities. I always think of NYC as it existed from 1998-2008 or often more like 2003-2008. I know about changes that happened since then and where they happened but they don’t register in my daydream or dreamscape when I think of NYC. I sometimes have dreams where I am back in NYC or Brooklyn. In these dreams, I am in my 40s but NYC is as I remember it from circa 2005-2008 (my grad school years.)

      It is easy to rail against NIMBYism. It is hard to find the psychological reasons why humans might become NIMBYism and to find a way to defeat it that way. I honestly don’t always think it is about economic value or keeping stock low to keep prices high. That is too advanced for most people to think about on a conscious level. I think a lot of it could honestly be sentimental and emotional like people who get really into Christmas every year. Of course sentiment is the things that economists, wonks, and technocrats are least capable of dealing with.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        @saul-degraw , there are lots of reasons why NIMBYs want to preserve their neighborhood in amber. One is financial. Less housing means higher property values for property owners. NIMBYism is a way to keep property values high if you are planning to sell. Other NIMBYs might be worried about being priced out of their apartments and homes by more development. Other reasons are more romantic but equally problematic. If you live in a low-density neighborhood that is up-zoned into a medium to high density mix-ed use neighborhood than the changes are probably not going to be that easy on the eye. The increased noise created by the building is also going to be problematic. People might have romantic memories of the old days like the people who reminisce about gritty New York.Report

      • Avatar North says:

        @Saul in my mind NIMBYism is natural, hell, it’s to be expected. I don’t buy something I don’t want – so why would I be in favor of it changing after I buy it. If you shelled out money for a microwave, took it home and some time later it transformed into a toaster you would be understandably unhappy. You didn’t buy a toaster- you bought a microwave. Presumably a microwave is what you wanted. If you can take action to prevent your microwave from turning into a toaster you might understandably do so.

        When people buy a home in a neighborhood they are buying for the neighborhood that exists at that temporal moment in time. Unlike normal durable goods neighborhoods natural inclination is to change. Human desire for control may often want to resist that change. Liberal cities create more avenues for those desires to manifest in restrictions on those changes and in general those barriers and restrictions create distortions and inefficiencies that fall on the back of the poorest and newest comers to the community.

        NIMBYism is natural and to be expected but in highly desirable cities it’s corrosive and drives inequality. The wealthy have the resources and connections to bypass or override most NIMBYism (and are themselves enormous promoters of NIMBYism. Those gorgeous expensive NY brownstones don’t persist because poor people are enamored with them). The wealthy can build/buy/combine themselves new residences in almost any restricted or constricted market or buy connections to obtain the necessary housing through whatever artificial system is put in place to try and ration housing. It is the middle class and poor that get forced out.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        There are financial incentives for NIMBYism, of course, but I don’t think that’s close to being most of it. There is also sentimentalism. There is also racism/snobbery (“I don’t want to live near poor people”). There are also some genuine quality-of-life issues. Who wants to deal with the added traffic? Or having a wastewater plant near them? Or a juvie hall? But these things need to go somewhere, is the problem in some cases. In other cases, these things may hurt the incumbents but they’ll help new residents more, or they’ll help more new residents.

        It’s all very understandable. But it’s a really, really hard model to accommodate with the public good.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        Some NIMBYism makes a lot of sense. Nobody really wants to live near something that would be nuisance like a waste treatment facility or a juvie hall. This type of NIMBYism can be dealt with by zones for potentially unplesant but necessary land uses like factories or electrical plants.

        NIMBYism is bad when it restricts non-noxious land uses like more housing or conveniently located and walkable commercial stores or public transit.Report

  14. Avatar zic says:

    Maybe I’m crazy, but it seems to me that part of the density problem isn’t urban; it’s suburban. Around here, it’s three-acre house lots.

    That’s where you need to increase density. McMansion conversions to two-family homes; basement-apartments, in-law apartments, attic apartments; garage apartments, pool-house apartments.

    But there’s like miles and miles of neighborhood covenant redtape between here and there.Report

    • Avatar ScarletNumbers says:

      Some people like living alone on three-acre lots, though.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      Oh, this is quite true. We talk of “San Francisco” when we mean “the Bay Area” and San Fransisco is more than doing its part.

      The post itself refers to metros, including suburbs. So its central thesis is not really affected (Blue metros costing more than their red counterparts).

      But instead of framing it by talking about more micro-apartments in SF proper, we should talk about building up outside of the city so that it more closely resembles it.Report

    • Avatar North says:

      On one hand you’re right Zic. Suburban regions are just as plagued by NIMBYism as Urban ones. The other hand is that suburban regions are replaceable. If people can’t easily live in one the suburb of Rosedale North then very few people find it morally problematic that they have to live in a different suburb- Rosedale South. If people have trouble living in or near the economic and cultural centers that city’s and their exurban cores are that’s generally considered quite troubling because they’re not only losing access to housing but to employment and cultural prospects as well.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        Greater density in the ‘burbs would, in theory, attract many of the amenities that exist in cities; better transportation networks, cultural institutions, etc.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        I don’t know if it works this way everywhere, but if some of the suburbs of Chicago are any indication, when a suburb gets too dense, the people with money just move to a different suburb with lower density, and the dense suburb just ends up looking like a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of the city.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        I think that often tends to happen to inner suburbs whether they become dense or not. It might actually be the case that densification occurs because that happens. The people most likely to object to the proliferation of multifamily units start moving out, exacerbating the process.Report

  15. Avatar zic says:


    nimbyism does make sense. A decade ago, my sweetie and I were shopping for a new house in Portland, East; the first US Portland. One of the houses I liked was on the edge of the Old Port and Munjoy Hill; trendy areas in the city. It was next to my favorite market — Muccucci’s, a great Italian shop on India Street. Coffee by Design’s on the block; and the Knit Wit (one of my favorite yarn shops), Ribolita’s, one of my favorite restaurants, and the Rosemont Market (my other favorite local grocer) were all within a five-minute walk. Plus, it had spectacular ocean views looking across the Fore River Channel, three blocks away, where the Portland Trails East Promenade trail begins and the Narrow Gauge Railroad runs.

    The house had a premium because of that view. Now, a decade later, the house has a view of a parking garage; at least the wall is solid, and they’ve painted a sepia-toned mural of Portland past, complete with women carrying parasols. And the house’s value dropped by $100,000. The old Jordan’s Sausage Plant (home of Maine’s famous red hotdog) is across the street, the plant’s gone, and the sites’ being redeveloped, including open space.

    When we passed on this house, we could have easily purchased it if we’d wanted, one of the reasons was those three blocks, and our lack of control of the view we’d be paying a premium for. So to some great degree, Nimbyism is to protect the value of your investment, and nobody should be denied that right. I strongly support people’s right to say if they approve or disapprove of development; that is part of the process.

    I think a lot of this breaks down in the planning stages; and that’s a great deal of what Smart Growth is about. Planning isn’t just protecting things as they are in your community; it’s identifying areas appropriate for change and growth, and planning for that, including the infrastructure necessary to support that growth, including sewer systems, water supply, traffic management, school enrollment, and recreational and community spaces. Good planning also lays out guidelines for density, and allows for density to shift through differing neighborhoods to provide varied environments. It allows for service centers that provide for the surrounding neighborhood and the pull factor load of non-resident people to that service center’s amenities. It considers light and noise pollution.

    This is not difficult to do; and there is plenty of room in this process for communities to experiment. But it does require people talking, compromising. It costs money to do good planning; and that’s one of the first things to be cut when concern’s of property tax burden arise.Report

    • Avatar Mo says:

      It is not the government’s job to protect the value of your investment. If I have the only barbershop in town it is not the government’s place to prevent other barbers from opening up just so that I can keep my margins.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        This is true but it runs into problems in representative democracy. Most people do not have ideologies because most people really don’t spend that much time thinking about politics and policy. Most people do have personal preferences and they will vote on those though and in a representative democracy, they are going to find people who will enact legislation based on their personal preferences or close to it.

        So I also agree with James above that people’s personal preferences are not a good basis for public policy* but I think it would be interesting to see if someone could come up with the solution for how to get around people voting on their personal preferences in a democracy.

        *Of course saying that personal preferences is not the basis for public policy raises the question of whether there is just one good public policy solution for all issues. I think Universal Healthcare is good public policy but there are many people who would disagree with me. This is why I think allegedly dispassionate technocracy is largely a sham.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        This is where layers of government can come in handy. The town where I grew up has a ban on multi-family housing. And it serves the community well – by their own accounting, anyway – by keeping out the sorts of people who can’t afford houses. Everybody wins except someone who wants to live in the town but can’t afford a house.

        It would strike me as reasonable for the county or state government to step in, if these things are creating a lot of external problems by way of a collective action problem.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        People generally like living in neighborhoods they consider attractive. Development might be a good thing overall but it can lead to an aesthetically unappealing environment. If a beautifiul ocean or lake front view becomes a parking lot, I’d be pissed to.

        Also, what Saul said. In a representative democracy, its the government’s job to do whatever the mass of people want it to do regardless of how good a decision it is.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        If a locality doesn’t want a parking lot to be built in a specific place, it seems to me the best thing for it to do is buy it. If they’re not willing to buy it, I’m not sure how seriously I should take their opposition.

        I do recognize that there are special cases where you want to reserve something, and think it’s great that Central Park is Central Park. I also support open beach laws, to prevent development from encroaching on such a finite (and special) resource. But I think that such reservations should be really, really limited. And obstructed views don’t really qualify.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        The town where I grew up has a ban on multi-family housing. And it serves the community well – by their own accounting, anyway – by keeping out the sorts of people who can’t afford houses. Everybody wins except someone who wants to live in the town but can’t afford a house.

        I think the expense of the whole McMansion phenomena is going to push at this. It’s sort of a variation of your kid living in the basement until he’s 30; turn your game room and bar into an apartment. Your garage into a ‘carriage house’ tiny home. The cost of oversized homes combined with the need for housing would, I hope, encourage density via removing those bans on multi-family homes in the ‘burbs.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        If they’re not willing to buy it, I’m not sure how seriously I should take their opposition.

        This is land trusts are of enormous value. Because they have limited resources, and because they tend to be supported by the local community, they put a lot of work into identifying resources with non-commercial value to preserve those values within the community.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        The township I am from actually doesn’t have “McMansions” really. In fact, housing prices there have remained pretty constant because of this. Constant development has lead to bigger houses elsewhere, and kept the costs of the now-smaller houses in check. It’s really quite remarkably. It’s become a neighborhood of “starter homes”… but no apartments. This doesn’t dispute your point, but I thought I would mention.

        I don’t mind land trusts, ideologically. Depending on the situation, I might think that too much land is being reserved in a particular place, or question the tax incentives sometimes in place, but at least in that case a town has put its money where its mouth is rather than micromanaging other people’s property. I’d be much less inclined to see a higher-level government step in, unless for some reason it got completely out of control (I can’t think of any examples of that, off the top of my head).Report

      • Avatar j r says:

        This would already seem to be the case, according to this article:

        Multi-family units are now making up over 30 percent of new housing construction, the highest level since sometime in the 80s. According to the article this is driven by millennial moving out of their parents’ homes, but not being ready to jump right into buying their own houses.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        zic, I’m really not sure of where the idea that kids should move away from home once the turn eighteen or graduate from college comes from. Its only really possible in countries with a lot of space and cheap housing. In other more densely populated countries, living at home until you get married isn’t seen as that unusual or bad. I’ve have a German friend that lived with her parents until she immigrated to the United States and its pretty common in Italy, Japan, South Korea and other wealthy countries for this to happen as well without comment.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        I think it is an Anglo-Saxon cultural issue/ideal. It doesn’t translate well to cultures or societies where multi-generational living was usually the norm and ones with strong feelings and ideals for filial piety.

        It is generally English countries and cultures where kids are supposed to be fully on their own upon reaching 18 or 21. So the UK, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        Re: Land Trusts.

        Governments facilitate them by agreeing to reduce taxes on what is going to be non-productive land (from a financial economics perspective), and some person(s) choose to forgo selling the land or using it in a profit-maximizing way. So both sides are putting their money where their mouth is.

        It’s a world of difference from a case like Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, where the local governing authority decides to make an unwilling property-owner bear the whole cost of a public amenity.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        Government also provides many non-profit insitutions, universities and churches for instance, an exemption from taxes. Some people value churches in their communities, though the land they inhabit might have some higher value in the commercial marketplace and often acts as a pull, driving up the costs for the municipality in terms of parking, traffic congestion, and other public amenities.

        I’m not sure I get that there’s such a big difference.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        You don’t see a difference between the government offering tax incentives and/or purchasing land versus the government deciding that someone who owns land cannot do anything with it?

        That’s the distinction that guides how James and I view land grants and regulatory takings differently.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        I’m flummoxed. What point is the church example addressing? It seems somewhat similar to the land-trust (in tax incentives and their effects, if not in the purpose of those incentives), and very different from mandates about how property can/not be used.Report

      • Avatar Mo says:

        @leeesq It’s a cultural thing. Mediterranean and other very family oriented cultures have a high proportion.Northern Europe is more like the US. Austria, Germany, UK and Scandinavia are very US like.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      Seems to me the possibility that somebody might build a parking garage ought to be baked into the price to begin with.

      One condo I’m familiar with went up with a view of the beach, which was quickly obscured by another condo going up along its view. Which does suck for the people who didn’t see that coming… but they should have because there was land in between them and the beach that was owned by somebody else.Report

    • Avatar zic says:

      @mo it’s not the government’s job; it’s your job, working with your local government.Report