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Housing and the aristocratic left

Yesterday’s post on Steve Lonegan might have given some readers the impression that I take the political right to be uniquely guilty of delinquency on housing questions, or that my criticisms of Lonegan were intended as a departure from a classical liberal position on housing markets. I hadn’t intended either message, so here is a bit of pushback on housing from the reverse direction–or rather, it’s pushback from the same classical liberal/libertarian direction but against adversaries on the reverse side of the political spectrum, that is, what Roderick Long aptly describes as the “aristocratic left.” Here’s a short letter of mine that was published in The New York Times nine years ago:

Ridgewood, NJ

Ridgewood, NJ

Published: January 25, 2004

To the Editor:

I found myself deeply puzzled by James W. Hughes and Joseph J. Seneca’s ”Controlling Sprawl” (Soapbox, Jan. 18). The authors note that house prices in New Jersey have grown for the last five years at an abnormally high rate. Having acknowledged that smart-growth policies are a ”culprit” in this regard, they spend the next seven paragraphs of their essay backhandedly singing the praises of those very policies, ending their piece with prescriptions that bypass the ”culprit” altogether.

New Jersey’s housing situation verges on the criminal. Should the ”culprit” be let off so easily?

IRFAN KHAWAJA

Princeton

Here’s a link to the original article by Hughes and Seneca. And here is a link to the Rutgers report mentioned in the Hughes-Seneca article. (It’s a 24 page PDF.) Look in particular at the discussion of artificial land scarcity and prices on pp. 9-10 of the report.

Open-space and farmland-preservation programs, as well as antisprawl measures such as larger-lot residential zoning, have had the effect of further exacerbating the homeownership affordability problem. By limiting the supply of land for development, the price of developable land increases, pushing up the cost of housing on the metropolitan periphery. This has made it much more difficult for households to trade up and out, the historic model for upgrading one’s housing conditions for the last 50 years. As a result, spiraling new home prices have increased the demand for, and the prices of, older housing, making inlying areas more viable as a housing option. The rediscovery and resurgence of many older developed parts of the region that once appeared destined for a troubled future is the direct consequence of declining housing affordability and increasing antisprawl constraints on new housing production, as well as new demand stemming from substantial immigration. No longer is homeownership in urban areas a losing financial proposition.

That understates the problem if you ask me. But it’s an interesting exercise to ask oneself about both the moral and politico-economic implications of the claims they do make. They write only about homeownership. What about rentals? Homeownership in urban areas is a winning financial proposition. But what are the losing ones caused by this dynamic? And aren’t even the successes of the winning propositions tainted and compromised by the fact that they are causally explained by the restriction of development on other land?

These are the questions that go unasked in our policy debates, where the only considerations are the standard middle class ones: What about property values on already-owned homes? How do we keep them elevated and maintain the yield on our investment? Not: What about the price of getting somewhere to live if you have nowhere to live? In light of that, it’s worth asking ourselves (and them) why liberals and leftists, supposedly so concerned about housing and the homeless, have done so little to publicize and address the relevant problems or discuss topics like those in the preceding paragraph. Why for that matter do Hughes and Seneca ignore the relevant issues in their “analysis”? Read their report for yourself. The facts are there, but where exactly is the “analysis”?

Camden NJ

Camden NJ

For a very different approach to related issues, I would highly recommend reading the work of John Mangin. Start with this well-received piece from 2012 in Washington Monthly. Also worth reading is the work of Timothy Lee on Mount Laurel and other exclusionary zoning policies. Neither Mangin nor Lee is a social science, but both make things more intelligible than many social scientists do.

The fight for a free market in housing will have to be a fight against both the classist right (whatever rhetoric it uses) and the aristocratic left (however much it hides behind greenery, bunny rabbits, Bambi, and “open space”). Part of it is a matter of putting pressure on the Steve Lonegan class warriors of the world. Part of it is a matter of putting pressure on pragmatist, left-leaning, supposedly wertfrei social scientists like Seneca and Hughes. And some of it will be about creating a political coalition that finds creative ways, consistent with a free market, for developing low-income housing. But none of this can work unless we create a critical mass of people convinced of the claims of liberty as applied to housing. And no one can be convinced by class-obsessed rhetoric that poisons the well from the outset.

Irfan

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