Why Should Progressives Force Big Cities to Become Even Bigger?

This is every American city dweller's nightmare.SIPA Asia via ZUMA

Jonathan Chait wrote a piece yesterday titled “The Urban Housing Crisis Is a Test for Progressive Politics”:

You can dive in to the details if you want, but the bottom-line conclusion is quite simple: Housing is too expensive in many cities because there isn’t enough of it. There isn’t enough of it because zoning and other regulations prevent the construction of high-density housing….Expanding the supply of housing allows people to move in to cities without displacing existing residents. The simple Econ 101 model of supply and demand does not solve every problem, but it does solve this one.

Why don’t we do it?…Even where activists have managed to broaden the question — like in California, where they brought a bill to the state level — it turns out that progressives are susceptible to NIMBYist rhetoric. Allowing the construction of more multifamily housing means relaxing — gasp — regulations. And it means working with — gasp — developers….The controversy in California and other Democratic-dominated areas has been heavily infused with instinctive support for existing regulation, and distrust of business as a malignant force….It is also a political test for whether progressives will be manipulated by knee-jerk suspicions, or be able to think clearly about using the market to serve human needs.

I feel the need to push back. Chait is right that development is primarily a local issue, and also right that most local government in large cities is Democratic. But this isn’t really a partisan issue. As he acknowledges, the problem is that city dwellers almost unanimously don’t want lots of dense new development, and whoever is in power will get thrown out pretty quickly if they do things that most of their constituents hate. Calling this a test for progressive politics is almost certainly wrong on this level.

It’s also wrong on several other levels:

  • This is not Econ 101, not by a mile. Just as building more highways attracts more cars and ultimately does nothing for traffic, building more housing attracts more people. We could make housing less expensive in Los Angeles—just as we could reduce traffic by building highways 40 lanes across—but the amount of new housing it would take to make a sizeable dent in prices is truly vast.
  • Don’t believe it? Consider New York City. Sure, building stuff there is hard, but it’s a city that’s basically friendly to high rises—and it has been since the invention of the safety elevator. By American standards, it also has a uniquely effective mass transit system. And yet, New York City is an expensive place to live. It’s been an expensive place to live for the past century. [See update below.] If you want cheap housing, this means you have to think beyond New York City. Whatever your plans are, they probably won’t work unless you have denser development and better mass transit than New York. There is not a city in America that’s within light years of this.
  • In terms of pure politics, do Democrats really want to be the party of dense, high-rise development? This is precisely what the fever swamps of the right think of liberals, and not in a good way. Taking this up as a theme sounds a lot like political suicide to me.
  • Again, in terms of pure politics, Democrats already suffer from self-gerrymandering: too many Democratic supporters are packed too densely into a few big cities. Do we want to make this even worse?
  • The reason people oppose dense development is not generally because they distrust developers.¹ It’s because traffic in big cities is already horrible and dense development will make it worse. If you ask people, that’s what they say, and it’s worth taking them at their word. There may be other reasons as well, including some less savory ones, but traffic really is the big kahuna. Nor are residents willing to be bought off by airy promises of better transit or whatnot. They’ve heard that song and dance before. Unless you have a real solution to increased traffic—and I’ll bet you don’t—you simply don’t have a solution for the most common complaint about dense development.
  • That said, is more and better mass transit the answer? Sure, if you mean a lot more. People generally hate mass transit—usage is dropping in LA even as the traffic gets worse—but they’ll use it if it’s convenient enough. However, in most cities that requires truckloads of money and, therefore, truckloads of higher taxes. Good luck.
  • In suburbs, things are even worse. The whole point of living in the suburbs is that it’s not the big city. This means that trying to convince suburbanites to become more like big cities is simply hopeless. They will fight you in the streets, fight you in the fields, fight you on the beaches, etc. They will never surrender.

Beyond all this, I’m not convinced that making our big cities bigger is even a good idea. Why should we? There are benefits to urbanization, but there also limits to economies of scale. Should New York have 20 million people? Should LA have 10 million? Why? Wouldn’t it be a better idea instead for, say, Pittsburgh to have a million people? Or Nashville? Or Little Rock? We’d be a lot better off with a few dozen more cities of a million or two million than half a dozen behemoths of 10 million.

Now, these cities might not want to grow either. Different cities have different priorities. But there are plenty of cities that do want to grow, so why not focus on them instead of trying to force unpopular ideas on a small number of our already biggest cities? This is a long-term problem no matter which way you slice it, but I’ll bet that if progressives started putting their efforts into making biggish mid-size cities into smallish big cities, they’d have a lot more luck. It would be a winning formula on a whole bunch of different levels.

¹Which is not to say that lots of people don’t distrust developers. They tend to be a pretty unsympathetic lot.

UPDATE: This isn’t really a core part of my argument, but it appears that New York was relatively affordable up through the 50s, and then took off after that. Apologies for the error. However, it’s expensive today despite pretty high density and pretty good mass transit.