Atlantic Cities

The Mixed-Up Politics of Urbanism

The Mixed-Up Politics of Urbanism
Reuters

One of the great challenges of writing about urban issues is that the standard ideological dividing lines always seem to get seriously scrambled.

When progressives, for example, see a fight pitting a neighborhood activist against rich developers, their instinct is to side with the activist, even if all the developer really wants to do is erect a building that will allow a lot more people to live or work or shop in their neighborhood. Indeed, the vast majority of big city residents are deeply committed to liberal politics on the national level, but feel just as comfortable standing with entrenched interests seeking to block change on a local level.

But the fact that houses and offices are built by rich businessmen shouldn’t distract people. The important issue is that American families need houses to live in. If space is scarce, then poor people won’t be able to afford homes and low-margin businesses and startups won’t stay in business.

Indeed, scarcity is inherently anti-egalitarian. When there’s not enough space to go around, it’s the economically weakest who end up being outbid no matter what the distribution of income is.
 
Meanwhile, for all conservatives' talk about small government and free markets, in practice, the movement shows zero interest in issues like abolishing government mandated-parking minimums. Ideological battles focus much more on questions of identity, and the conservative movement has strongly positioned itself as an anti-urban movement (see Rick Santorum's city-bashing over the weekend) for conformism-minded suburbanites.
 
The Right can muster the energy to denounce overweening land-use regulation here and there if it’s aimed at curtailing sprawl or protecting wetlands. But the routine subsidization of parking and broad-brush prohibitions of multi-family dwellings don’t bother them. It’s striking that even with a wave of new hard-right governors elected in 2010, none of them have put meaningful reform of anti-density land use regulation on the agenda. Instead, the order of the day has been to cut spending on rail and mass transit projects.
 
The reality is that Americans want to move to the urban core. Not all Americans. Perhaps not even most Americans. But more Americans than live there currently.
 
That’s why housing is so expensive in the major coastal metropolises and also in the core downtown areas of lower-cost midwestern cities. The appropriate policy response is to stop disparaging apartment buildings as tenements and stop preventing developers from building them. People should by no means be “forced” to stop owning and driving cars, but there’s no reason for regulations to incentivize these activities. Progressives and urbanists need to move beyond their romance with central planning and get over their distaste for business and developers. Conservatives need to take their own ideas about economics more seriously and stop seeing all proposals for change through a lens of paranoia and resentment. Lastly, politicians of both parties who like to complain about “regulation” and “red tape” ought to spend some time looking at the specific area of the economy where red tape and regulation are most prevalent.
 
The question, ultimately, is not whether suburbs deserve to be valorized or disparaged. It’s to recognize that over the long run, quasi-forced suburbanization disadvantages the majority of people, including suburbanites, by needlessly driving costs up and economic opportunity down.

Photo credit: Shaun Best/Reuters.

Adapted from THE RENT IS TOO DAMN HIGH by Matthew Yglesias. Copyright © 2012 by Matthew Yglesias. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Keywords: Politics, Rent

Matthew Yglesias is business and economics reporter at Slate. All posts »

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