Thursday, April 30, 2015

Democracy and the Challenge of Affordability: The Case of Housing

by Quinton Mayne
Harvard Kennedy School
This post kicks off a month-long series that our colleagues at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation are doing on affordable housing as a challenge to the health of American democracy, and in particular local democracy in the United States. The series, edited by Harvard Kennedy School Assistant Professor Quinton Mayne, is part of the Ash Center’s Challenges to Democracy series, a two-year public dialogue inviting leaders in thought and practice to name our greatest challenges and explore promising solutions.

Over the past two years, the Ash Center has welcomed leading experts from across the country to debate the structural weaknesses preventing the United States from achieving its democratic potential. Democracy demands an equal right of participation; but as the Challenges to Democracy public dialogue series has shown, the formal design and practical workings of America’s political institutions are preventing the full realization of participatory equality. Some of the key challenges covered in our series to date include the erosion of voting rights and access, the decline of social movements, and the integration of immigrants into political life.

In addition to metrics of participation related to voice and input, democracy can also be judged by its outputs. When public officials produce policies responsive to the needs and demands of citizens, democracy would appear to be in good health. But are elected politicians enacting laws and designing programs in line with popular preferences? Answering this question from the point of view of affordability, there is good reason to question the health of American democracy.

Long before the Great Recession struck in 2008, affordability posed a major problem for the American middle-class dream. The rising costs of health care and college education have made the headlines for many years now. Energy and gasoline prices also cycle in and out of the news, and in the past half-decade or so the cost of child care has grown in importance. The devastating effects of the recession on individuals and families across the nation, coupled with the organized groups and movements that emerged and strengthened in defense of those affected by the recession, brought a much-needed urgency to the issue of affordability.

Despite this heightened attention and the public policies and programs it has produced, democratically elected officials in city halls, state capitols, and the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. are struggling to systematically respond to the challenge of affordability.

Nowhere is the democratic challenge of affordability more obvious than in the case of housing. According to a 2014 report issued by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, 35 percent of U.S. households in 2012 were in housing that they could not afford. In other words, just over one in every three American households was paying in excess of 30 percent of their income in housing alone. If we break down this statistic and look just at renters, more than 50 percent are cost-burdened. The picture becomes even more alarming when we train our gaze on Americans with lower levels of income. Among households with annual incomes of less than $15,000 – which roughly equates to working year-round at the federal minimum wage – more than four out of every fifth household spent 30 percent or more of its income on housing, and almost 70 percent spent more than half their income on housing.

These are shocking statistics. They are also politically troubling ones because they suggest that large numbers of Americans with pressing need are being underserved by the democratic process. Governments across the U.S. may not be able to eradicate housing unaffordability, but they certainly have the tools and means to reduce it greatly below current levels. That they have not been able to do so to date poses a major democratic challenge, and one that we will be looking at in this series of seven posts on the Challenges to Democracy blog.

Over the next month we will be publishing commentaries and thought pieces from authors that we have invited to examine the issue of housing affordability principally through the lens of local government. As a complex issue shaped by a variety of social and economic forces, the problem of affordable housing cannot be addressed by cities alone. State and federal policy is also fundamentally important. That being said, many cities have fiscal and legislative resources at their disposal that can be used to improve the current situation.

Some of these municipal resources can increase residents’ access to affordable housing through indirect means. This includes investments in public transit and the regulation of local labor markets. Other resources are more direct: cities can increase the supply of affordable housing through financial support and direction provision. Crucially, cities also enjoy far-reaching land-use and zoning powers that can profoundly affect Americans’ access to affordable housing. In the blog series we will be looking at how and why city governments are succeeding and failing in using their resources and powers to tackle the widespread burden of housing costs.

The opening blog posts focus on the problem at hand. In the first post, Adam Tanaka, a doctoral student in urban planning at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, interviews officials overseeing a newly created innovation lab that aims to tackle the problem of housing affordability in the City of Boston in the coming years. The second post by Margaret Scott, a Master in Urban Planning candidate at the Graduate School of Design, considers how housing affordability has been suburbanized in recent years and the difficulties that this new geography poses for those hoping for government action.

The next two blogs focus squarely on the real demands that responding to the challenge of housing affordability places on politicians and the public sector. Given the magnitude of the problem, achieving an adequate supply of affordable housing requires local politicians with bold visions for the future who are able to build and manage broad coalitions of economic and social actors. The third post, also from Adam Tanaka, addresses this question of the pressing need for coalition building and governmental ambition by considering the affordable housing plans recently announced by Mayor de Blasio of New York City. As in many other advanced industrial democracies, public housing authorities have long served as important vehicles for local governments in the U.S. to meet affordable housing need. In our fourth post, Margaret Scott reflects on whether public housing could hold the key to unlocking supply to address the current housing affordability challenge.

The final posts turn to the role that grassroots activism plays in alleviating the burden of unaffordable housing. Focused on a non-profit that has operated in Boston for four decades, our fifth post by Adam Tanaka looks at the power of community organizations not only to place demands on elected politicians to get more affordable housing but also to serve as partners with the public sector to plan and deliver affordable housing. Our final post is by two documentary filmmakers, Andrew Padilla and King Williams, who were featured speakers in our November 2014 panel discussion, The Politics of Displacement in the American City. In their post, Padilla and Williams reflect on the role that they and other filmmakers have played in raising awareness of the problem of housing affordability and galvanizing support in favor of more effective government action.

As the blog series will show, the challenge of generating an adequate stock of affordable housing in the United States does not appear to be wanting for policy prescriptions or technical solutions. The problem instead appears to lie at the feet of elected politicians. That so many Americans are today burdened by the cost of housing (as well as the cost of child care, health care, and college education) is attributable to policy choices made by governments over many years. This is not to downplay the difficulty of tackling the problem of affordability either in the past or the present. As our blog posts confirm, the task at hand is a demanding one: elected officials must attend to a complex and changing constellation of forces and actors, and they cannot act alone. That being said, the challenge of responding to the clear and present need for affordability remains fundamentally a democratic one.

Read more posts in the Challenges to Democracy series.

Quinton Mayne is Assistant Professor of Public Policy in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a member of the Joint Center for Housing Studies Faculty Committee. His research and teaching interests lie at the intersection of comparative and urban politics.

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