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  • The New York Times - Emily Badger

The Bipartisan Cry of ‘Not in My Backyard’

The housing secretary wants to encourage mixed-income, multifamily development as a way of making housing more affordable. But it’s a notion homeowners of all political leanings tend to oppose.

Ben Carson, the secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, wants to spur construction of mixed-income, multifamily housing all over the country. If we had more of it, he argues, homes would be affordable to more families, and they’d have more options of where to live.

He is probably right. But the kind of housing he describes is impractical, illegal or too costly to build in much of the United States today, in suburbs and big cities alike. Blocking it are: zoning rules that allow only single-family homes; laws that dictate the size of yards; elaborate permits that drive up development costs; and rules that grant neighbors a veto over what is built.

Mr. Carson, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal this month, effectively came out against such restrictions, threatening to withhold federal grants from communities that embrace them. In doing so, he waded into — and further muddled — the mixed-up politics of housing development in America.

Mr. Carson framed the idea in traditionally conservative terms: the logic of rolling back regulation. But conservative communities and Republican voters are among those who’ve pushed to tightly regulate development. Democrats have done the same. Nimbyism knows no party limits.

Liberals and conservatives clearly prefer to live in different kinds of communities. Liberals say they prefer more urban, walkable neighborhoods, and conservatives less dense communities with larger homes. But studies show that homeowners of both parties support restricting development around them. And they do so in spite of their own ideologies — whether conservative voters might otherwise value free markets, or whether liberals value policies that aid the poor.

Further complicating the politics of his proposal, Mr. Carson raised the issue as he announced HUD’s plans to enforce the Fair Housing Act by expanding the housing supply in general — rather than attacking racially segregated housing patterns in particular.

That unnerved housing advocates who agree with him on the problem of housing supply but distrust him on the problem of segregation. Mr. Carson left unmentioned the fact that land-use regulation has historically been wielded by local communities to maintain segregation.

“Local control in the history of land use is synonymous with the generation of exclusivity, or the funneling of people into bad neighborhoods, or building refuse and recycling plants right in the heart of the black neighborhood,” said Jessica Trounstine, a political scientist at the University of California, Merced, who studies segregation. “That’s what land-use regulation does. The more local control you have, the more this happens.”

She has found that people who live in whiter neighborhoods today are more supportive of restrictive development, and that cities that were whiter on average than their respective metropolitan areas in 1970 have more restrictive land use in the 21st century, a pattern that helps explain why segregation persists.

Beyond race, the crucial divide in the politics of housing development isn’t between left and right, but between people who own homes and those who don’t. William Fischel, an economist at Dartmouth, has long argued that homeowners who fear threats to their property values are motivated as voters to protect them.

More recently, Andrew Hall and Jesse Yoder at Stanford compared voter file data with housing deeds for 18 million voters in Ohio and North Carolina. They found that buying a home prompts people to participate much more in local elections, particularly when zoning questions are on the ballot. And the effect of homeownership is far larger — boosting turnout by about four percentage points — than most strategies political campaigns use to drive voters to the polls, like personalized phone calls.

The more expensive the home people buy, Mr. Hall and Mr. Yoder find, the larger the increase in their likelihood of voting. That suggests that homeowners aren’t more likely to vote merely because they become invested in their communities. Their motivation also appears to grow as the value of their asset does.

One possible interpretation: “It’s not that you become more selfish, but you become more likely to translate selfishness into political action,” Mr. Hall said of homeowners. “Renters could be just as selfish, but they’re not getting their act together as a group to vote.”

Generations of American politicians have argued that homeowners make good citizens — and in the early days of the nation, only property owners could vote. It seems reasonable that a financial stake in the community would make people more likely to care for it. But this research suggests that homeownership can also prompt people to oppose what’s good for their communities in a larger sense — at least if you believe, as Mr. Carson does, that many communities need more housing.

It is clear from other research that homeowners’ views on this issue transcend partisan politics. Michael Hankinson, a political scientist at Baruch College, has surveyed Americans about their support for development and found no evidence that conservatives particularly oppose regulation or embrace free markets when it comes to housing.

He found them less likely than liberals to support a 10 percent increase in their city’s housing supply, and more likely to support a ban on new development in their neighborhood. (He also found evidence of renters in high-cost San Francisco behaving a lot like homeowners, opposing new development in their neighborhoods that they might have feared could price them out.)

Similarly, in other surveys, Clayton Nall and William Marble at Stanford have found that liberals who say they support redistributive policies also oppose new development around them. Their ideology on national issues clashes with their personal interests as homeowners, and if forced to pick one they tend to choose the latter. Even being shown messages reminding them of the benefits of new housing for low- and middle-income families does little to alter their views.

Perhaps we don’t see clearer partisan divides around development, Mr. Nall and Mr. Marble write, because party elites haven’t staked out contrasting messages around it, or even spoken about it that much. On many other issues — climate change, abortion, taxation, anti-poverty policies — national politicians do precisely this, signaling the “correct” position for voters to adopt according to partisan identity.

It’s not even clear which party is better suited to promoting development, given that it could equally be framed as unshackling private interest from regulation, or extending benefits to the poor. Before Mr. Carson, the Obama administration also argued for easing land use regulation. HUD did the same with Jack Kemp, when he served as housing secretary under President George H.W. Bush, in a weighty report lamenting the country’s “pervasive Nimby syndrome.”

Those messages, from officials in both parties, have been overpowered by the reality that the federal government can do little about fundamentally local laws, and by the bipartisan will of homeowners. The instinct to protect property values may be too deeply ingrained in America to change.

“We have been a nation of land speculators,” Ms. Trounstine said. “This is how the nation was founded.”

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