The Corner

Progressivism Is a Luxury Good, Part 921

One of my favorite amusements is getting my lefty San Francisco friends talking about planning-and-zoning rules, construction permits, and their effects on the cost of housing in their city. They go from Castro to Mises faster than you can go from the Castro to the Mission District. Writing at The Atlantic, Derek Thompson warms to a favorite theme of mine: Big, liberal cities are great places to live for rich liberals and other well-off people. They sort of stink if you’re middle class or low-income.  Thompson writes:

The deeper you look, the more complex the relationship between blue cities and unaffordable housing becomes. In 2008, economist Albert Saiz used satellite-generated maps to show that the most regulated housing markets tend to have geographical constraints—that is, they are built along sloping mountains, in narrow peninsulas, and against nature’s least developable real estate: the ocean. (By comparison, many conservative cities, particularly in Texas, are surrounded by flatter land.) “Democratic, high-tax metropolitan areas . . . tend to constrain new development more,” Saiz concluded, and “historic areas seem to be more regulated.” He also found that cities with high home values tend to have more restrictive development policies.

One could attempt tying this together into a pat story—Rich liberals prefer to cluster near historic coastal communities with high home values, where they support high taxes, rent control, and a maze of housing regulations to protect both their investment and the region’s “character”, altogether discouraging new housing development that’s already naturally constrained by geography…—but even that interpretation elides the colorful local history that often shapes housing politics

Fair enough — politics doesn’t explain everything. But it does explain a lot: Housing is expensive in places such as San Francisco and New York City because of demand — lots of people want to live there — and because of supply, which is artificially constricted by the sorts of planning policies that the Left wants to apply to just about everything. The results are generally predictable: Medicaid is awful for a reason, but rich progressives who resist reforming it will seldom experience that awfulness first-hand.

California is not a very rich state; its median household income is right between those of Nebraska and Wyoming. (Wyoming’s is higher, if you’re wondering.) New York City is a relatively poor city, with a median income below the state’s. And that is before you account for the wildly inflated cost of living compared to Houston or Phoenix.

If you think you’d like living the typical life in the sort of world progressive policies will produce, try raising a family in New York City on the median household income of less than $51,000 a year. Try buying San Francisco’s median home — at more than $750,000 — on San Francisco’s median household income of $73,802.

Progressivism is a luxury good for coddled urban professionals; it immiserates everybody else. Families earning San Francisco’s typical income, which is half-again as much as the national average, are far too poor to buy the typical home. That sort of thing does not happen by accident, and progressive cities’ economic war on the poor, like their enduring and pronounced racial segregation, cannot be explained away by mere geography. The Left has all the power in San Francisco; so far as public policy goes, the city is the way it is because progressives want it that way. 

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