Book Review by Nick Licata
Cities with significant economic growth are seeing an increase in homelessness and working families pushed out of town. Seattle and San Francisco are primary examples, each with growing populations, jobs, and poverty. They also have progressive political cultures that have churned out innovative programs providing more affordable housing. But while progressive activists urge developers to build affordable housing, some see the need to incentivize housing development through zoning deregulation.
In his new book “Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America,” Randy Shaw strongly champions this approach. Shaw’s simply pushing for fewer restraints on the marketplace — as a longtime advocate for renters in San Francisco, he’s successfully lobbied for rent control. Despite operating the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, one of the nation’s most successful housing providers for very low-income people, he sees younger generations in search of affordable housing pushed out of the city.
Shaw argues that the causes of these ills are city zoning laws that bar multifamily projects from many neighborhoods and neighborhood activism, which he calls the “long-overlooked villain in cities pricing out the non-affluent.” Baby boomers, he argues, “have enjoyed soaring home values by preventing the construction of new housing in their communities.”
That’s a long way from a time when neighborhood activists saw themselves as being akin to author Jane Jacobs as they fought community-weakening real-estate-speculator developments. But Shaw notes that over time, single-family communities’ opposition to higher residential density — in the form of policies like restrictive height and density limits — has promoted inequality by keeping people of color and lower- and even middle-income families out of their neighborhood.
Shaw also details the ways various blue cities are approaching the challenge of providing more affordable housing; Seattle and Denver receive favorable recognition for building new housing. While the author concedes that housing costs in both cities have risen sharply in the past decade, he claims that the increase would have been even greater without an increased supply in housing.
But that’s difficult to measure.
In Seattle’s case, housing costs increased over the last three years at a higher rate than in other cities of comparable size. But while the cost of single-family homes over the summer fell faster in Seattle than anywhere else, the city’s housing costs remain some of the highest in the nation.
In other cities, like Austin, Texas; Boulder, Colorado; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Portland; and San Diego, Shaw identifies how urban politics are shifting to promote rather than oppose new housing. Millennials, in particular, are a new political force opposing the entitled boomers who have benefited from the neighborhood-preservation movement. Shaw sees “many boomers [blaming] young workers, particularly those in tech, for causing the housing crisis.”
In this generational struggle, boomers may mock millennials for squandering their money, but “their real goal is to derail a rising political movement that supports building urban housing for all income levels.”
Shaw wraps up his analysis by proposing 10 steps that cities should adapt to produce more affordable housing. Most are practical and noncontroversial: “Enable nonprofits to purchase small sites” and “Seek local and state funding for affordable housing.”
But the springboard for executing these strategies is to mobilize a new political force, led by an alignment of green groups and developers, to eliminate zoning practices that hinder greater residential density.
“Generation Priced Out” boldly challenges the progressive community to rethink how to achieve greater economic and racial diversity by providing more affordable housing. But there is still more data needed to substantiate the assumption that rezoning can do this. It may be too soon to crunch the numbers to determine what happens after upzoning low-density neighborhoods. Will the incentive to build more affordable housing cease when the demand for housing inevitably tapers off? Shaw’s book adds a thoughtful voice to the national discussion in addressing such questions.