Maybe it was the unseasonable warmth in New York this winter, but it does feel as though the discourse around affordable housing has become just a touch overheated of late—like surface-of-Mercury, gas-station-coffee, control-rods-jammed-in-reactor-Number-Four hot. There have been threats and counterthreats; posts have been deleted, accounts banned. A little sampling of recent blue-bird chatter, just for flavor: “psychotic YIMBcels”; “Frankly sickening nimby”; “YIMBY clowns”; “First time to sit tomorrow with a NIMBY. Any tips other than violence?” It gets worse from there. The dispute between, on the one hand, advocates of housing development as a means to bring down prices (at least for renters), and those who favor sweeping regulations on the other, has come to resemble a wonkish, extremely online sequel to the Hatfields and the McCoys, right down to the prevalence of beards among the principal antagonists. Of course, this time around, what’s at stake is a lot bigger than swilling moonshine.
With more than nineteen million people nationwide now classified as rent-burdened, and rents spiking upwards of 30 percent in the aftermath of the pandemic, the housing crunch in America’s largest cities is nothing short of catastrophic. Brewing with greater or lesser intensity for over thirty years, the progress of the crisis more or less tracks with the emergence of the prevalent terminology—“Not In My Backyard” first appears on the record in the early 1980s, “Yes In My Backyard” follows in the early 1990s. But only with the advent of social media did this otherwise obtuse policy debate take on its current outline, with the same noxious script playing out over and over: the pro-development party suggests, with apparent good sense, that increasing supply (especially of the tax-incentivized variety) must eventually result in lower prices; their opponents counter, just as reasonably, that new construction (even of purportedly below-market units) all too often fails to bring prices down, and occasionally pushes them up. The Yes-ers fire back with abundant proof showing the present impasse follows a decades-long deficit in housing production nationwide, attributable to the anti-development tendency; the Not-ites quickly retaliate by pointing to the manifest evidence that pro-development forces, with their not-affordable-enough rentals, have done little but compound the problem, exacerbating gentrification and displacement. Round and round it goes, the argument quickly escalating into mudslinging and death threats.
Far be it from me to try and part such hopelessly troubled waters. The housing universe, even just the low-cost rental variety, is vast, and almost any assessment is in peril of being just as reductive as the Two-Headed IMBY Monster. But in the course of writing about the affordability crisis, I’ve come to believe that there is a key variable in the housing equation that, while not overlooked exactly, is not getting its due amid the present brawl. It is an issue that, once upon a time, was the chief preoccupation of housing advocates of every political stripe, and while it won’t force the current belligerents into an armistice, at the very least it might allow for a refreshing change of conversation. The topic: What if, instead of bickering over whether something should happen in your backyard, we asked what exactly is happening in your backyard? What if we worried more about the quality of affordable housing, both new and old? Because in the end, even were the ongoing affordability blood feud less tiresome, this is the question we’ll have to answer. With much of America’s existing affordable housing in precarious physical condition, and the livability and durability of much recent subsidized construction as yet untested, the problem of quality is one that will find us out sooner or later.
The House of No
To start, let us return to a simpler time: the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, at the dawn of the modern housing reform movement. To the society doyenne and the socialist firebrand alike, the picture of America’s urban housing emergency looked more or less the same. The tight, airless tenement; the potbelly stove with its sagging pipe; the sooty-faced children and the rheumy-eyed parents. Thanks in no small part to photographer Jacob Riis, this image catalyzed an all-hands response from an unlikely band of ideological bedfellows, most of whom could agree on very little except that substandard housing was too expensive at any price. Together, they pushed through landmark legislation that set basic guidelines for health, safety, and size, while also building a wide variety of new housing—philanthropically funded garden apartments; experimental cooperative complexes; and, in time, federally financed social housing—that gave working people a shot at living decently.
Even the most ardent anti-red-tape, go-go supply enthusiast is bound to blanch at the image of cramped apartments with no room for children in dangerously ill-maintained buildings whose basements reek of ancient dry-cleaning solvent.
Whatever the shortcomings of some of their individual efforts, those early reformers largely succeeded in doing what they set out to do: putting an end to the lunger blocks and firetraps that bedeviled big cities before the Second World War. Nonetheless, here we are, a century and more later, still stuck with a housing market that stubbornly refuses to produce the kind of housing that people actually need, only this time with the dilemma framed solely (albeit with reason) as one of cost, and with every idea to address it falling (as a result of that limited framing) into a futile, data-jammed, pseudo-dialectical pit. In place of masonry, we have tirades on Reddit. Instead of community, there are nonsense parades of consonants. The sheer dopiness of the nomenclature—the synthetic acronyms and the pseudo-taxonomic “right” or “left” qualifiers frequently appended to them—ought to signal that something is fundamentally screwy about the whole conversation. To a certain extent, it smacks of a misbegotten language game, in which the two competitors have simply failed to agree on the rules—a common flaw in online disagreements, as we know. But beyond that, there’s reason to believe that the contest itself is moot. Because the fact is, at least for the moment, both sides appear to be winning.
In cities across the country, housing construction is on the rise, with new multifamily starts jumping by 15 percent year over year in 2022. At the same time, tenants’ rights organizations have won crucial victories in jurisdictions as far flung as New Hampshire (a court ruling in September guaranteed new eviction protections), Wisconsin (which capped annual rent increases in tax-subsidized properties at 5 percent) and California (a new measure in Los Angeles extended back-rent payment deadlines, among other benefits). And while the warring camps will jockey for credit and claim the other is set to spoil their hard-gotten gains, the end result is the same. After the brutal increases of the immediate post-Covid interval, rents over the last couple of quarters have been falling nationwide at their fastest rate in years: 6 percent in Boston, 5 percent in Los Angeles. The progress is modest, and it could reverse itself at any time. But it’s a start.
Digital hot air aside, the twin slogans of “Build, Baby, Build” and “Tenant Power Now” have thus far executed an uncoordinated but surprisingly effective pincer movement on the housing crisis. As Huffington Post reported last month, some erstwhile partisans have even settled into a wary truce, recognizing that it may be possible to “pass tenant protections and policies to increase supply,” as one longtime combatant put it.
Talk of peace has actually been in the air for years; a San Diego think tank promisingly named the National Conflict Resolution Center tried to broker a both-sides-ish treaty back in 2019. Though it pains me to differ with the NCRC, I doubt an Era of Good Feelings is really possible. The differences are too substantive and can’t be talked away. Yet for all the rhetoric, the real concern is what has remained largely unsaid.
Imagine, for an instant, a version of the not-so-very-distant future in which things have continued to progress basically along present lines. Buildings have gone up, landlords have been held in check, and the only thing that policymakers, advocacy groups, and the online peanut gallery have focused on is the bottom line, the net-net impact on average cost. In that regard, their efforts have not been entirely in vain—except that now, American cities are saddled with a different version of an old problem: plenty of “affordable” housing, little of it any good.
The reformers of yesteryear were committed to quality, sought to advance it by whatever means were closest to hand, and pushed for further means not yet available.
This prospect should give pause to any believer in affordability, regardless of their dispensation. Consider the development-first contingent: more and more, the new mixed-income projects being built in American cities tend to feature lower per-unit square footage than in decades past, include vastly more complex mechanical plants, and are being built in marginal in-fill locations like former industrial brownfield sites. All of these things may be deemed necessary in many instances—though not, surely, in every instance, nor to such an extent as to render existing legal safeguards magically obsolete. Even the most ardent anti-red-tape, go-go supply enthusiast is bound to blanch at the image of cramped apartments with no room for children in dangerously ill-maintained buildings whose basements reek of ancient dry-cleaning solvent. For those still undaunted, it’s worth wondering how desirable any newer buildings will be in a city where, year after year, resources have flowed almost exclusively to their construction while thousands of older affordable properties (including public housing, where conditions are already dire) have been left to crumble into dust.
Buildings, like facts, are stubborn things, and their upkeep tends to escalate in difficulty—and thus in cost—the older they get. Which brings us to the don’t-build affinity. As tenant protections expand, it would seem advisable—essential even—to expand the supply of new buildings in order to replace those too expensive to repair without steep rent hikes, or too far beyond the help of human hands to repair at all. Tenant organizations are right to decry the moral odium and Rube Goldbergian complexity of the subsidized development system. Yet bringing lower-cost housing out now may help spare a host of quality-related botherations down the road, including one that ought to put the fear of god into people who have spent decades battling landlords: as leaks multiply and bills mount, poverty-crying property owners may demand that city agencies bail them out in order to keep lower-income residents warm, dry, and rent-regulated. (Those calls may be very hard to resist when the imperiled low-rent building in question is of special historical significance. But that’s another kettle of piranhas.)
None of this is to imply, or to preclude, any particular solution; it’s simply to say that, once the qualitative standard has entered the discussion, the binary formula to which so many cyber-critics have become attached starts to break down—although frankly, I wonder how many people were ever truly one thing or the other. For starters, the discursive duopoly was always partially a social media illusion: sure, reducing average rents is the order of the day in markets like Los Angeles and Austin and New York and Nashville, but in Memphis and Buffalo, and hundreds of other mid-tier cities across the country, quality has long been of utmost concern, with municipal authorities building and renovating to stem the tide of abandonment as well as to furnish a buffer against future higher-cost development. What’s more, whenever one of those tax-subsidized, uninspiring developments does come along, no one has to consult their TL to remember what to think about it. It’s not that hard to judge a project on its merits, to recognize the political and economic constraints to which it is beholden, and then to ask whether it is affordable enough, livable enough, and attractive enough to justify the compromises likely to come with realizing it.
And to be clear, a studied agnosticism about the quality of this or that individual affordable building or policy doesn’t require anyone to abandon their larger ideological commitments. Are you a damn-the-fire-codes, full-cranes-ahead Yes Man? Bless your heart; now calm down, take a deep breath, and reflect that, if what the crane is building is rotten, the public at large may form rather a dim view of cranes. Are you a rock-ribbed, all-housing-to-the-people No-No? To you I say, may the wind be at your back, may the road rise to meet you, and may you recall that, if the revolution arrives tomorrow, its progress will not have been seriously hindered by making tough choices to provide working people with better homes today. The reformers of yesteryear were committed to quality, sought to advance it by whatever means were closest to hand, and pushed for further means not yet available.
If we value housing as a human right, we would probably do well to slip the paradigmatic straightjacket of “affordable housing” altogether, setting our sights instead on “good housing for working people.” If we did that, we might find ourselves spending less time on nicknames, and more on, well, everything else: a renewed push for social housing (maybe start with expanding existing projects, as in architecture firm PRO’s proposal for the MoMA New York, New Publics show). Emerging construction technologies (modular, prefab, or the experimental 3D-printing field, where startup company ICON is now looking to build houses for under $99,000). Novel housing types (windowless bedrooms, not so great, but the co-living concept has proven remarkably workable, especially in Northern Europe). Support for new co-op formation (Minneapolis has been considering it, Washington, D.C., already has it, and New York might get it this year. Let a thousand kvetchy board meetings bloom!). Beyond yes and no, there’s an exciting world of maybes out there.