Capital Will Not Solve A Housing Crisis That It Created

Our YIMBYs pay lip service to policies favored by the socialist left. Bernstein and Kraemer advocate for social housing, community land trusts, rent control, and cash assistance. They also call for massive upzones, which allow construction of multi-family housing and other taller, denser structures on areas cities currently reserve for single-family homes. Developers have long advocated for these changes, as upzones allow for more types of revenue-generating construction, or as Austin organizer Andrew Dobbs calls it, a “capitalist strategy for maximizing rent extraction”. Other groups accrue various benefits and disadvantages from upzones, but they are best understood as vehicles to accelerate capital accumulation.

Curiously, they proclaim that upzoning is a necessary prerequisite for the first four policies, going as far as to say that they are “nearly or entirely impossible” without upzones. Given that rent control exists in many cities nationwide, most of which have at least some parts of the city zoned to prohibit apartments, and that many community land trusts operate in areas zoned exclusively for single-family homes, this assertion is farcical. (Not to mention the numerous affordable housing bonds being proposed in single-family strongholds like Berkeley.) Our studious authors must be aware of this fact, making it all the more peculiar that they would make the claim, if we are to take them in good faith. This does not even mention that the local governments that set these land use codes are also the authorities approving public and social housing projects, making zoning not a prerequisite to building the units.

The authors acknowledge the failures of the market. However, rather than removing the market from the equation, the “social justice focused urbanists” advocate for new policies meant to incentivize private development of affordable housing, mirroring Tony Blair’s assertion that “[his] kind of socialism is a set of values based around notions of social justice,” while continuing Thatcher’s draconian cuts to the British welfare state. Vague advocacy for unspecified “companion policies that will ensure equitable outcomes” follows, establishing economic justice as secondary to their primary endeavor of making it easier for developers to make money.

Our authors acknowledge that upzones do not change rents for those with the least wealth and closest to homelessness, citing a Washington Post article noting that rents are still rising for most renters even with the recent influx of new construction, despite a miniscule downturn for the richest third of renters. Yet they still accuse socialists of ignoring reality, proclaiming that “people living on the brink of homelessness or foregoing medical needs to pay rent cannot wait for capitalism to fall before we bring rents down”. This sentence is especially telling, as there is an acknowledgement that the market has failed these people, but asserts that we cannot serve these citizens outside the market. Despite years of supply-side economic policy that prove the contrary, the notion that rents will come down with liberalized building laws is somehow a more realistic thought to these people than that affordable housing can come from places outside the market.

Bernstein and Kraemer desperately try to find positives from the Post article, noting that rents were stabilizing for the middle third of renters, who make $20,000 to $50,000 annually. They exclaim that this stabilization is “great news” being ignored, as if monumental rents continuing to be monumental as wages go down is worth celebrating.

Further attempts to Shock Doctrine us into pro-market politics follow, with the authors declaring that “we are in no position to turn away solutions”. From our “socialists”, this position is understandable, as upzones have about as much to do with affordable housing as post-Katrina charter schools did with rebuilding New Orleans. Even when enough housing is built, there is no guarantee that it will remain affordable. Notoriously expensive Vancouver, British Columbia anticipated its population increase and ended up “overbuilding” for it, that is, constructing 113 new units for every 100 new residents. A greater surplus of units exists today than in 2001 in Metro Vancouver, yet the median cost of a dwelling is 11.8 times the median income of the city (compared to 5.9 in 2001), making it one of the most expensive metropolitan areas on the continent.

Even as our authors themselves admit that aggressive upzoning do next to nothing in creating affordable housing, they still proclaim that it is morally imperative as it will “tear down the invisible walls that keep the masses out of livable neighborhoods”. The invisible walls are not zoning laws, they are capital. Capitalism does not need to fall before rents will come down, but the power of capital does need to be challenged.

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