Photo by SusanAstray on Flickr.

Are the very policies intended to sustain neighborhoods and preserve affordable housing paradoxically the same ones pushing rents up and families out to the suburbs? That’s case Slate Moneybox economics writer Matt Yglesias makes in his e-book, The Rent is Too Damn High.

On Wednesday at noon, Matt will join us to discuss the book and we hope you’ll help us get things started with your questions in the comments.

"High rent is not a fact of nature,” writes Yglesias. “It’s a result of bad policy.” Height limits, historic preservation and density caps intended to keep neighborhoods quaint, whether imposed overtly by official policy or subtly by zoning officials, act as supply caps driving up prices and imposing gentrification.


The conventional wisdom in community development is to preserve current buildings and fight redevelopment of existing low-cost rental units. But that’s exactly what we’ve been doing for the last decade. Instead, the number of affordable units in DC has been cut in half since 2000. The low-cost housing that remains is often poor quality and far from public transit.

While much of the public debate about DC development policies today centers on the height limit, that’s far from the only restriction on growth. Locals governments also impose mandated lot sizes, building setbacks, floor area ratios, and parking minimums that restrict the amount of housing and drive up the cost of building new development.

So what’s the solution? Yglesias takes the economist’s perspective, targeting supply and demand:

[W]e need to acknowledge that there are only two sustainable ways to reduce the price of housing. One is to lower demand by making a given place a worse place to live. Detroit features high crime, low-quality public services, and a bleak job market. The rent in Detroit is not high. [...] The other way is to increase housing supply.


Opponents of smart growth policies contend the suburbs have grown because of America’s desire for a white picket fence and a two-car garage. Yglesias says that through policies that discourage additional housing units from being built in urban cores, we’ve given families little other choice but to turn their backs on urban cores in search of cheap housing. By easing restrictions on urban housing supply, some of those families could move closer to the core, cutting their commute times and reducing their carbon footprints.

Yglesias resists policy prescriptions, instead closing with a call for those on both ends of the political spectrum to let go of failed policies and take a fresh look at possible solutions. “Many on the Left — starting with my inspiration, Jimmy McMillan — are confused about the relationship between housing affordability, regulation, gentrification, and quality of life over the long term,” writes Yglesias. “On the Right, the problem is one of myopia and identity-driven resentment.” He also wants our public debate “to better distinguish between the price of land (a speculative investment commodity, like stocks or bonds) and the price of houses (a consumption good, like a car or a refrigerator).”

Yglesias has faced some pushback in urban development circles. In a reflection of how fast the online news cycle moves, we already have articles asking if the pro-density movement has gone too far, even though at last check DC’s height limit remains alive and well.

At a time of political polarization, is it asking too much for liberals predisposed to distrust corporate developers and conservatives prone to distrust government solutions to come out of their corners? What processes in our systems of government and public debate could be better utilized to facilitate the discussion? Can a happy medium be found between opponents of DC’s current development restrictions and the skyscrapers feared by their supporters?

Post your questions in the comments, and we’ll try to ask as many as we can during the chat. And join us on Wednesday at noon for what should be a very informative discussion.