The Housing Market Is Absolutely Insane: How To Fix It
Article Table of Contents
- Get rid of things that harm us
- Do things that help us
- Valid problems with these fixes
I had a brief exchange with a good friend recently:
The housing market is indeed insane. This problem that we’re both discussing is:
- Unbelievable ($650,000 for a fixer upper)
- Oppressive (“unjustly inflicting hardship and constraint, especially on a minority or other subordinate group”)
It’s not certainly fixable, it’s not unavoidably fixable, but it’s fixable if a few things can be made to happen.
I can defend each of these assertions. High housing costs are responsible for crippling the growth of generations of people, forcing large numbers of people to homelessness, etc.
I’m not writing this article to convince you that there’s an actual crisis around housing costs. Like, today, this week, this month. It’s a crisis. If you don’t think there’s a crisis, I’d posit you are part of the problem, but like I said, I’m not writing to convince you there’s a crisis. It’s so obviously a crisis that, to people who see it accurately, they’d be annoyed how much they’d have to explain it to you.
Read [The Color of Law], [The Power Broker], [The High Cost of Free Parking], [Order Without Design], [Seeing Like A State], [Strong Towns], etc. I don’t have time today to educate you on why the way “housing gets built” is a catastrophic problem.
When you look at your monthly income, and look at the cost of housing, and imagine trying to buy and pay off a house in any sort of desirable area in America, and you see how fundamentally impossible it is for you to ever own a house free-and-clear, within a few years, you know there’s a problem.
We need to do a few things:
- Understand how pleasant cities have historically developed. (AKA “Is there any place-or-time when this seemed like a solved problem”)
- Understand how the current way of doing things makes things worse and not better
- Understand the actual changes required to fix these problems
- Work backwards from actual changes to the current world we live in
Get rid of things that harm us #
Euclidean design #
Fixes come from a range of directions. There are supply-side problems in housing, there are demand-side problems in housing. The entire financial infrastructure around homeownership is bananas.
Most of the modern legal regime governing housing, it’s acquisition, it’s payment, what you can do with it, is the regime created by racists with the explicit goal of keeping black people from being able to live in ‘nice neighborhoods’.
Zoning laws #
Most zoning laws (I say “most” because I’m SURE someone can find a single counterfactual) cause extreme harm.
They slow down the speed of experimentation/change, the raise the costs of change, and they lock out large groups of people from ever participating in the evolution/creation of their own cities
I touch on this here:
1/20 Thoughts on Denver's zoning and systemic racism.— Josh Thompson (@josh_works) August 15, 2020
Here's a screenshot from @CityofDenver's zoning map on https://t.co/Tzx271JS8u.
This is textbook Euclidean Zoning, AKA "Single-Use Zoning".
The problems of this form of zoning are well-known:https://t.co/WqiklxjB4h pic.twitter.com/7RDaFJlttS
Euclidean zoning #
Euclidean Zoning is cancerous. http://sites.bu.edu/dome/2018/07/19/the-problems-with-euclidean-zoning/
From that article:
Euclidean zoning has also:
- exacerbated segregation issues
- limited housing supply
- encouraged urban sprawl
Eliminate minimum-everything #
No more minimum lot sizes. No more minimum parking requirements.
Restrictions on minimum lot sizes, strict building codes, and other elements of Euclidean zoning have increased housing costs, limited new housing construction, worsened affordability issues, and increased the inequality divide in urban areas.
I’ll expand on this later. In general, minimum lot size laws were written to raise the cost of housing (and keep black people out of white neighborhoods). Do you need more evidence that the laws should be removed? If you’d like evidence of that assertion, I’m happy to provide it, assuming you’re acting in good faith.
Eliminate most building codes #
I want to live in a safe house. I also want to live in a place with shelter. If I have two options, which should I choose?
- Option 1: Live in a place that doesn’t meet residential building code requirements
- Option 2: Be homeless
Which would you have me choose? If you well actually… your way into option 1, you’re part of the problem. But that’s OK, I don’t actually need you to agree with me to fix the problem.
People start with “inadequate” housing, when they’re resource-constrained, and then they upgrade their environment as they can.
Please see the book: How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built
Eliminate zoning laws #
They were written by racists to keep black people out of neighborhoods. I feel dirty even having to explain this. The racists wrote that this was their goal when rolling out the institution of zoning. If you’re even partially honest in saying “that cannot be!!! I am not a racist!” just go read the original zoning plan
Zoning laws, in America, are horrific and cannot be “modified” to be anything but horrific. Eliminate them.
We could replace it with Japanese zoning laws which, while they still have problems, are dramatically less harmful than American racially-biased zoning laws.
Do things that help us #
So, after getting rid of bad stuff, we need to actually do lots of good things. reduce, reuse, recycle, better use of space, better use of money, provide more important things like jobs, shelter, food, transportation to the people who live in the city.
Hire people that actually understand how cities work, and let them provide expert guidance on how your city should work #
Go read Order Without Design, and internalize its message.
Cities are labor markets
Cities are about labor markets and economic activity. Stop artificially separating housing from commerce. I wish so hard that I could walk next door and grab a coffee and a block over and buy some groceries and another block over and hit up the local tiny climbing wall, and on my way back grab a beer and do some work in a coworking space.
Oh, right, I can’t, because 100 years ago, some asshole decided that people shouldn’t be allowed to open businesses from their house because that was what poor black people did and that asshole used laws to criminalize the way of life of poor people.
Josh, we need licensing and permitting because without it, ANARCHY!!!
This is pearl-clutching, and you’re wrong. So wrong that I cannot even bear to write two sentances explaining why licensing is horrible. Just go read stories about it, and ask yourself ‘how the hell did we ever get to such a bad place’
So, since cities are about labor, and licensing artificially restricts the barrier to provided services, and cities have generally criminalized living and working in the same spot of dirt, you can maybe see why cities have to throw away all the shitty laws they’ve got around licensing and “home occupations”. (That’s a pejorative term, and I’d love to never hear it again.)
Oh, and stop funding your police department. They’re a terrible solution to mostly a not-problem, and most of what they do is oppress minorities and perpetuate our uniquely american “criminalization of poverty” thing. https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/behind-the-police/id1518323701
(I have problems with political authority. Mostly because it’s not real. There is no “political authority”. There’s three groups in the world:
- people who use “political authority” as justification to make threats of violence against others
- People who think political authority requires that they and others submit to the demands of group 1
- Everyone else
Obviously, group 1 is small and powerful. Group 2 is huge. Group 3 is rapidly growing.
Eliminate restrictions on commercial and residential activity in the same lot #
If I want to work and live in the same place, who the hell are you to tell me I cannot? This is how human societies have managed themselves for all of time.
Valid problems with these fixes #
There’s some problems with these fixes. I’m suggesting throwing away about a century of legislation that seems beyond the pale to many people.
The issue is that Euclidean zoning, is so ingrained it will be difficult for towns to change their entire structure.
It’s so engrained. How do towns fix this?
Honestly, towns need to do away with local governments. Just straight up end it. Stop paying your taxes. Stop going to city meetings. Stop submitting building plan propossals. Stop requesting permits. Just take your property and build on it.
So, what happens when all this oppressive, legal bullshit is stripped away?
We let “the market” sort itself. When the price for something is high, that attracts persons who try to solve it because there’s money to be made.
An aging couple might convert their garage to college housing. They might rent out a basement to a small family. With a little up-work, they’ll bring in an extra $2k/month, forever.
Incidentally, this solves the ‘social security is running out of money’ problem for any elderly person who lives in a desirable locale.
Now, there’s more people living in neighborhoods. OH NO! THE TRAFFIC!
JK, that won’t be a problem, because most people won’t drive nearly as much as they do when they live here: