In response to several requests, this post is adapted from a recent Twitter thread that readers seemed to like, even though I impulsively started it during a break at work while irritated at some tweets.
There’s a straw man that gets a lot of abuse in online housing debates: that the more-market-oriented variety of pro-housing activists (like several of us at STB) think “housing is simple” or “supply will fix everything.” That’s never been true, and I thought it might be helpful to clarify what’s driving the refrain of “add housing supply.”
When we talk about supply, what we’re saying isn’t remotely “supply will fix everything wrong with housing.” It’s “without more supply, it’s really freaking hard to fix anything.” Adequate supply makes it much easier and cheaper to do lots of good things, both in and beyond housing. The environment of extreme housing scarcity (which has been around throughout the adult lives of many West Coasters under 35!) corrupts every public effort not only to house people, but to improve their lives in myriad other ways. In an environment of housing scarcity, landlords have so much leverage that they can completely hijack progress on many goals that have consensus support among all factions of the West Coast left. Wage increases, subsidized health care, and subsidized child care end up allowing people to pay more for rent–and, where housing is scarce, landlords can & will demand that they get all of the extra money such efforts put in people’s pockets.
Making housing public (while it may be desirable for other reasons) doesn’t address housing scarcity on its own. A government agency that operates public housing is still a landlord, and it still has leverage, even though that leverage may get exercised in ways other than higher rent. Where there’s scarcity, public homes often get allocated according to connections, insider relationships, seniority in the area, or just plain luck. Rich people make illicit deals with the lucky winners to occupy units.
Scarcity gives landlords leverage. But the best way a tenant can exercise leverage over any landlord, private or public, is to say “Screw you, I’m moving.” That can’t happen where housing is scarce. But it can happen. I’ve experienced it: in my 20s, making $11-12 per hour, I moved out of an apartment where the landlord was trying to sharply increase my rent, because other apartments were readily available at reasonable cost.
Getting to an environment where “screw you, I’m moving” is a credible threat can’t happen immediately. But it is possible, and it requires three policy changes: 1) tenant protections to make moving cheaper (which might include lower penalties for early move-out, lower security deposits, and a uniform low-fee application); 2) serious fair housing enforcement that is strong enough to address widespread discrimination against renters of color and renters with disabilities; and 3) yes, sufficient supply.
“Sufficient supply” has to be at a local level. A frequent criticism of supply-side housing advocates is that more supply helps at a region-wide level, but can have localized negative effects that people ignore. That’s valid! It doesn’t give a tenant any helpful leverage when new supply is all in other places, or when it’s all extremely expensive because there’s not enough of it. Saying “screw you, I’m moving… 20 miles away where there’s housing” isn’t real leverage. Real leverage for tenants is the ability to move locally, so that a move doesn’t upend a tenant’s life or create a horrible commute.
How to achieve that will vary, a lot, between neighborhoods. In wealthier areas with less risk that low-income tenants will be displaced, it’s good enough to say “upzone, and let developers build as fast as possible.” But we need to add supply in poorer areas too, because tenants there are so much more prone to exploitation and displacement when there is housing scarcity. It’s impossible to address housing scarcity in an area without adding lots of housing there.
And, again, supply by itself is not enough. More supply in low-income areas will not fix poverty. It won’t ever provide housing for the lowest-income populations, which don’t tend to be served well by housing markets. Initially, it won’t even provide working-income tenants with any leverage, until enough is built that scarcity is eased. All these things are true. And, even so, we still need to build everywhere in the area to have any real effect on the condition of scarcity.
If we don’t fix scarcity, other efforts will continue to spin their wheels like an articulated bus on ice. Anti-displacement and tenant activists will be Sisyphuses, trying to roll a heavy rock of landlord leverage uphill. Anti-poverty efforts will founder, because money will go to landlords instead of staying in the pockets of people with low incomes. Public housing won’t serve residents with very low incomes well, because people with more money will muscle in. New market construction will all be for the rich, even where it’s basic; so-called “luxury” apartments are rarely much different from cheap ones, except for their location. Housing abundance will ease all of these issues.
Supply is not the end of the story. It’s just the beginning. But enough of it would make all of the other work that housing advocates do much easier, and is absolutely necessary to ease the stranglehold that landlords currently have on their tenants. It’s a huge project, that will take years of building, and there will certainly be problems to address along the way. But we need to keep building for the dream of a future without housing scarcity to have any possibility of coming true.