The Urban Housing Crisis Is a Test for Progressive Politics

Several years ago, a fired-up young activist came to my door asking me to sign a petition opposing the construction of a new apartment building in the neighborhood. The new building was to occupy what had been, for many years, a vacant lot along a major thoroughfare. If the building (which now exists, and is quite lovely) could not go up without generating neighborhood ire, it is hard to imagine where new housing in a major city would not cause local resistance.

The difficulty of increasing housing supply is a problem across major American cities, especially on the coasts, but also in many non-coastal university towns and other prosperous areas. In California, the problem has taken on crisis dimensions. Cities have grown unaffordable, and the main barrier to firms that have many new jobs to offer is finding housing for potential employees. The state’s economy is losing $140 billion a year.

The state’s legislature killed a bill to alleviate the housing crisis. The bill, S.B. 827, would have forced cities to allow denser construction of housing within walking distance of mass transit. The reform would have brought multiple benefits: the social benefit of reducing housing costs by increasing supply; the economic benefit of opening the major bottleneck to job creation (and with it, more tax revenue); and the environmental benefit, allowing more people to live in energy-efficient apartments that don’t require driving everywhere.

California Republicans opposed S.B. 827. But Republicans, by and large, were not and are not the problem. California is a one-party, Democratic state. And many other cities facing a shortage of housing are likewise run by Democrats, as most cities tend to be. The state’s leading Democratic gubernatorial candidates, and even…

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