An old boss of mine had a sign on the wall of his office that said, "Expecting people to be convinced by the facts flies in the face of the facts."
To anyone who's so much as dipped their toes into America's housing policy debates lately (especially on social media), this observation about human nature is evident. And likely so no matter where you fall on specific policy questions. Opposing camps on housing have dueling claims to scientific objectivity, and lob back-and-forth accusations of "You don't understand economics," "You're cherry picking examples," or "You're not arguing in good faith."
And academic studies easily end up weaponized. MIT doctoral candidate Yonah Freemark recently published a paper that studied the effect of Chicago's upzoning areas near transit stops to allow for higher-density development. It found that construction permitting did not increase as a result of the zoning changes, but that real-estate prices did increase in those areas, contrary to the hope of affordability advocates that the reverse would happen.
Passed through one side's ideological filter, this study immediately became this headline: "New MIT study suggests the Yimby narrative on housing is wrong." (That’s from 48 Hills, a San Francisco blog associated with neighborhood activists.) The internet is full of other hot takes on the study, running the gamut in terms of interpretations. Freemark himself was prompted to tweet out the response shown here.
These fights, waged on Twitter and various blogs, start to feel like nothing more than noise after a while. And according to a fascinating new article by Rick Jacobus for Shelterforce, titled "Why Voters Haven't Been Buying the Case for Building," none of the many, much-hyped academic studies about housing have done much to sway public opinion:
The Los Angeles Times and researchers from the University of Southern California asked 1,200 California residents about the causes of the housing crisis. Only 13 percent of respondents blamed the crisis on “too little homebuilding.” Twice as many people included “lack of funding for affordable housing” or “lack of rent control” as top explanations for the problem.
[LA Times reporter Liam] Dillon sought comments from experts who struggled to explain the results; they all agreed that the lack of supply is at the root of the problem. .... Both in the comments section on the LA Times website and on Twitter, commenters wondered what it was about supply and demand that voters can’t quite understand. More than one person suggested that all voters be required to take an entry-level economics class.
Given the enormous gulf between the view of Dillon’s experts and the majority of voters, one reaction that was conspicuously missing from the overall response was curiosity. Isn’t it possible that voters understand something that the experts are overlooking?
(Side note: if you're interested in a deep dive into housing policy, and you haven't been reading Shelterforce's coverage of America's affordable-housing debate, you're missing out. The community-development blog consistently addresses a diverse mix of perspectives and doesn't settle for any side's easy answers or dogma. This piece by Miriam Axel-Lute on NIMBY vs. YIMBY is also a really good longer read.)
"Housing Economics is Advanced Economics"
Jacobus observes that not much about housing markets is predictable using Econ 101 models—housing is usually a graduate-level topic in economics because of its complexity. His piece provides an informative and lucid outline of what economists do know about housing, but also what they don't know, and how some common objections to YIMBY ["Yes in My Backyard"] arguments actually dovetail pretty well with the things economists are uncertain about. Laypeople might not be able to articulate those things in the language an economist would use, but the objections might not indicate ignorance, so much as healthy skepticism of the type academic experts themselves (usually) embrace.
Or, put another way: the average Joe or Jane's BS detector works better than we policy wonks often give them credit for.
More importantly, Jacobus offers some powerful insights about why, to most of the public, The Evidence™ is not going to be the thing that wins the day. And why getting to real progress on housing people who need homes requires that activists and pundits understand that.
A Case for Incrementalism and Experimentation
I'd take Jacobus's point a step further. Because cities are complex systems shaped by many different actors, no single academic hypothesis about how prices should respond to this or that action is ever likely to be borne out in every instance. No one should confuse academic observations about how housing filters between submarkets (read the Jacobus piece if that phrase is Greek to you) with, "You pull this policy lever and it spits out that outcome."
The reaction to the Yonah Freemark paper is a case in point: thoughtful counterpoint pieces have raised not just theoretical observations about what we can and can't generalize from the study, but also speculation about how very local quirks, such as Chicago's culture of aldermanic privilege [in which city council members exercise near-veto power over development in their own districts] may play into the results. Freemark actually demonstrated something far less universalizable than what armchair pundits on the Internet spun it into.
This doesn't mean we get to throw up our hands and say, "Well, no one knows how housing markets actually work, so I guess we ignore the experts and just pursue whatever policies we like!"
We do know things at the broad scale. It's quite clear that the interaction of supply and demand influences price. It's quite clear that building new housing—a lot of it, in some places—is a crucial part of any effort to fix our affordability crisis. (Here's Rick Jacobus from a couple years ago with Why We Must Build, laying out that case.)
But the more you zoom in on a particular neighborhood, or block, or property—that is, the level at which real people experience the real housing crisis in their real cities—the more cause and effect gets obfuscated by really, really complex chains of interacting variables.
A complex system calls for a different response to urgent problems than a more linear system where we can mechanically link causes to effects. While, if a piece of software has a bug, you get a programmer to find and fix the bug, a complex system requires an approach designed to make the housing market more antifragile. And that's what Strong Towns has sought to offer, through the following principles:
Calm the waters of speculation that make neighborhoods unstable, by allowing continuous small-scale change and redevelopment instead of a choice between stagnation or dramatic change.
Practice the via negativa when it comes to policy interventions: aim to remove distortions rather than risk adding more.
Recognize that solutions need to look different in different places.
For Much of the Public, It's About Who Has a Stake
The Strong Towns approach of re-legalizing incremental, bottom-up evolution of cities, the way they used to evolve, dovetails in another important way with Jacobus's insights:
Yes, local governments in hot market areas must take bold action to enable more development, but it matters to voters what kind of development results and, specifically, who that development is for. Instead of (or in addition to) focusing on changes that support development in general, we should identify the policies that change who benefits from new development and we should stress that aspect when we explain these policies to the public.
Incremental and small-scale development are policies that have a lot of potential to change who benefits from growth, without requiring sweeping top-down action. The kind of developer who builds a triplex isn't usually the same kind of developer who builds a 300-unit apartment complex. The triplex-builder is someone far more approachable and rooted in the community in which they're working.
These community stakes are crucial. There is simply not going to be a way to turn around public opinion based on a simple "Trust the experts" pitch. And there shouldn't be. The track record of the experts—or rather, those who claim expert authority to justify sweeping, top-down decisions whose unintended consequences can't be undone—is pretty bad. As Jacobus puts it:
Time and again, housing policy ‘experts’ in this country have helped rationalize and implement policies that enriched property owners and real estate investors at the expense of communities, particularly those of color. We bulldozed people’s homes. We wrote racism into the zoning code. We promoted harmful financing scams. Our collective failure to own up to these past harms is a surprisingly central force driving the current housing shortage. Many people simply aren’t inclined to trust the experts any more.
But maybe the community will trust solutions that they see as emerging, bottom-up, from their own neighborhoods. And where there are such solutions—and particularly, ones that the experts also recognize can make a real dent in our housing problems—they're an obvious place to start.
(Cover photo: LA Metro via Flickr)