Yesterday, on the second floor of the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., Next American City hosted a panel discussion on affordable housing policy, homeownership and the regulations that get in the way of both.
But it wasn’t any old panel discussion, with tepid talking heads nodding along with one another and, at best, politely disagreeing. Instead, we brought together experts from across the ideological spectrum to duke it out over zoning, land use, minimum densities, maximum densities, height limits, et al.
Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow at Cato, argued for the abolishment of nearly all regulations, casting them as the doings of urban planners intent on forcing Americans to live uncomfortably cramped urban existences, rather than achieve the age-old American dream of owning a single-family homes on a big lot (you can read more about O’Toole’s position in his new book or, for a more digestible version, his op-ed in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer).
Randal O’Toole, and Randal O’Toole’s tie. Credit: Cato Institute
Meanwhile, Slate’s Matt Yglesias and The Economist’s Ryant Avent — both of whom also have new e-books out on the affordable housing debate — took a more centrist approach. While they generally agreed that too many regulations have hindered the ability to build more housing and therefore keep housing prices low, they focused their argument on loosening the regs that would allow cities more freedom to build up and thus, increase the density that O’Toole fears.
To Avent, more density would mean more jobs and higher rates of economic production as well as a larger supply of housing, which would push prices down at the same time as more jobs are making more people better wages. In sharp contrast to O’Toole’s micro-lot-loving urban planner villain, Avent’s bête noire is NIMBYist activists who use regulatory mechanisms to fight new development.
As Avent argued in a recent New York Times column adapted from The Gated City:
“…The effect is to raise housing costs and make rich cities more exclusive. Real trouble occurs when the idea-generators in cities with that NIMBY approach become so protective of their pleasant streets that they turn away other idea-generators, undermining the city’s economic role. And that is happening. Entrepreneurship rates in Silicon Valley were below the national average during the tech boom because firms couldn’t attract enough skilled workers.”
NAC founder Adam Gordon was able to show how the debate manifests in a local context by using examples from his home state of New Jersey, where Gov.Chris Christie is trying to abolish the state’s affordable housing authority, anyone?).
All four panelists shared a belief that the market, if freed from the costly red-tape of regulation, would correct itself and meet affordable housing needs. (Judging from the questions asked by the audience following the panel, and from the mumbles heard throughout, many in the room did not share this faith in the market.)
The conversation touched upon policy everywhere from Portland, Ore. — in a conversation before the panel O’Toole, a Portland native and a cyclist, lamented how regulatory “road diets” have made Portland streets to narrow to accomodate bikers, making the streets more dangerous for them, not less—to the zoning-free Xanadu of Houston, Texas (one of the few places in the country where we can still do a lot of building). Current NAC Executive Director Diana Lind moderated.
To watch in full, check out the video below, courtesy of the Cato Institute. Later on, we’ll have another video of followup interviews with the panelists and audience members. Oh, and to show our appreciation for readers and viewers, you can get 15 percent off of a Forefront subscription by entering the discount code “CATO” on our subscriptions page.
Update: After the panel wrapped up, NAC intern Sean Andrew Chen turned the camera on the audience, asking for their reactions to the conversation. Check it out to see how some real people feel about affordable housing: