A new slogan: abundant housing

AURA, the urbanist group in Austin I’ve been so excited about, has adopted the language of “abundant housing.” The concept is simple: build enough housing for everybody who needs a home. Although abundance and affordability are intimately linked, the call for enough homes for everyone doesn’t require invoking affordability. It’s a strong statement of inclusivity and social justice on its own.

Abundant housing makes all housing more affordable

Even if you don’t buy my argument (and overwhelming consensus among economists, real estate people, etc.) that abundant housing leads to affordable housing, you should stand up for abundant housing because everybody deserves a home.  But I’ll flesh out the link anyway. I’ve compared the housing market to a game of musical chairs. If you don’t have enough chairs to go around, the competition is going to be intense not just for the last few chairs, but for every chair. Similarly, if there aren’t enough homes to go around, the competition for homes will be intense up and down the market. This is the situation today in Austin and in cities throughout the country: rising prices, cash-only sales, homes selling sight-unseen. The competition for homes is intense at all levels; even those who can definitely afford some housing are forced to contend with rising rents. Abundant housing aims both to make sure those at the bottom have a place to live and everybody else isn’t subjected to the intense competition that makes our current housing markets so hard.

Targeted affordability isn’t enough

Affordable housing can refer to mandated Affordability or housing that’s just affordable. Whether the specifics of the affordable housing strategy are bond-driven Affordable Housing, Affordable Housing setasides in new development, or targeted relaxation of laws that only allow new housing that will likely be affordable (e.g. very small units), these strategies are all based around the idea that the best way to improve affordability is to create new housing that will enter the market at the lowest end. In its worst form, you see not only a preference for housing targeted at the cheapest end of the housing market, but opposition to the creation of net new housing because that new housing is at the higher end.

But in a game of musical chairs, the intense competition for chairs doesn’t come from the fact that there are too many thrones and not enough folding chairs; it comes from the fact that there aren’t enough chairs, period. If there are ten fewer chairs than there are contestants, whether you add ten thrones or ten folding chairs, everybody will now have a seat. In this view, discouraging people from adding seats because they aren’t targeted at the particular folks who lost last round is perverse; you are hurting those folks’ chances of finding a seat, not helping them. Abundant housing is built around the same idea: policy that allows new housing to be created easily will allow more homes to enter the market, enough that everybody can find a place to live. With the competition between buyers/renters being less intense, rents won’t rise as much across the market. Whether that’s done through small new units cheap enough to hit the middle-to-bottom of the market, bond-supported Affordable Housing units, or new luxury condos absorbing the demand from the richest, there will be housing for all.

Lack of abundant housing overwhelms Affordable Housing

Affordable Housing policy is necessary to help those who need it, even when there’s enough housing to go around. For the musical chairs analogy, in a game with as many chairs as contestants, an adult might find themselves next to vacant chairs designed for children; a contestant with a mobility impairment might not be able to reach a vacant chair because the path is blocked. This is analogous to a well-functioning housing market in which there are still some folks who need a hand, perhaps temporarily because some bad thing happened or they simply lack funds; perhaps permanently if they have a reason they will never be able to make rent. But these intervention strategies are overwhelmed when there are simply too few chairs to accommodate all contestants. If there are fewer chairs than contestants, no amount of targeted interventions will help. They merely result in a different set of folks going without a chair. But fixing the abundance problem, the Affordable Housing efforts can go back to serving specifically those who need it even when there are enough chairs to go around.

10 thoughts on “A new slogan: abundant housing

  1. This is brilliant. Because who’s going to be against abundant housing? “We want to use the power of the government to create a shortage of housing, to force people to crowd into unsanitary conditions or sleep on the street!” Nobody is going to want to rally around a platform like that. The key is making it clear to people that there really is a shortage in the first place, but I think people are starting to realize that.

  2. I see that Austin gained 95,000 people between 2010 and 2013.
    So people didn’t not join the game because there weren’t enough chairs of whatever sort.
    (Or perhaps, it just occurred to me, you might not consider that a substantial enough gain, that it was in fact artificially suppressed in a socially unjust way.)
    How will we be able to tell that we are providing enough homes for everyone who in your opinion deserves a home in Austin, Texas? Do you look for home prices or rents to decline here? Steeply?

    1. I’m not trying to judge what a “substantial enough gain” is; that depends entirely on how many people there are out there looking for homes in Austin. If there’s need and desire for 150,000 homes, so be it. 200,000? So be it. 20,000? So be it. The alternative is shutting people out.

      As you say, prices are the main tool for judging whether there’s more people out there looking than there are homes. I’d also add vacancy rates, which are currently very low in Austin. There’s also average days on market and qualitative stories about the housing market, like the fact that many sellers are limiting themselves to cash sales only, which shows that they have a lot of buyers to choose from.

  3. It may be a simple binary – in/out, on/off – but Austin’s experience suggests to me there’s more of a continuum than that.
    You’ve placed it on moral grounds, but I quickly become confused when trying to consider how much is owed people who don’t live here yet, by people who do – if, as you obliquely suggest, people already here are greedily holding onto things that they ought to share. Kind of hard to argue with that. Jesus was unambiguous that we should all shed our possessions, and when we are none of us starving what are our possessions but the things it would really sting us to lose, things we value, tangible and not; for instance, in the case of some old Austinites, our conservation land.
    If our city should function primarily as a social justice engine, for that to be meaningful, in terms of drawing the world’s poorest people, those rents and home prices would have to fall quite a bit (especially if wages fall as their numbers swell). If rent drops just enough that recent college graduates won’t have to owe their parents quite as much money to be able to live in a momentarily cool place, or stuff five in where four would be more comfortable – well, where’s the social justice in that? I once paid in monthly rent, in Austin, an amount equivalent to what my father paid in greens fees on a given day. I assure you I added nothing to either the ethnic diversity or the social capital of this town. I mostly just walked around all day.
    But, to be more generous to the young people coming along now, an argument could be made that other communities could use their, uh, talents and their youth and energy, than Austin does.

    1. “You’ve placed it on moral grounds, but I quickly become confused when trying to consider how much is owed people who don’t live here yet, by people who do – if, as you obliquely suggest, people already here are greedily holding onto things that they ought to share.”

      I generally place the same moral weight on current residents as potential residents. We’re all people. But in some ways the line of thought is irrelevant. The majority of the city are renters. Once a year, their landlords have the opportunity to raise rents. For those who can’t afford the new rents, this means displacement. The people who are shut out by lack of abundant housing aren’t only outsiders, they’re also current Austin residents who can’t afford the new rents. Put in musical chairs terms, when you add 100 players to the game (per day!), those 100 players aren’t necessarily the ones who can’t get chairs.

  4. Reducing even for an imaginary exercise, the needs of the population to the single metric of shelter makes me a bit anxious for civilization. And I definitely wouldn’t take a bet that remaking a handful of old central Austin neighborhoods will mitigate sprawl in the region. But leaving that …

    Houston seems like it approximated a game of no-limits musical chairs while I was growing up there. Chairs were continually added to make the game go on and on, without zoning and with few of the other fetters, beyond parking requirements, that now dismay urbanists. Even more perfect for the analogy, across whole swaths of the city, it offered nothing but chairs – well, and jobs. No little urban niceties, though.
    Arriving in Austin twenty-five years ago, I was immediately struck by how much more egalitarian it was (the jobs part, I admit, mystified me a little, and still does, to say the truth). Not that it was unsorted by ethnicity, but there were pleasant places to live all over. It was shady and pretty and walkable on both sides of the interstate. And there were lots of public spaces: ill-maintained – as they still are, Austin not being run by grown-ups – but in place. Your thrones mixed with chairs. Partly, I’m sure, this atmosphere owed to the fact that nobody in Austin had Houston money. But in Houston, huge areas were just written off. The winners and losers were so very obvious.

    Doubtless you will say I was naive and mistaken, that because of its growth Houston was de facto a much more level playing field. Maybe so, but that was my strong impression of an Austin that was the product of an earlier generation of developers – and of civic activists, whose only-partially-successful efforts are now derided as outmoded, and NIMBY-ish, and of course most unacceptable of all in the 21st century: tree-hugging.

  5. That suggests Houston’s development community has needlessly left money on the table all these years. I can’t think why. There could be no better place to get “burdensome” regulations changed. What civic engagement there is, is entirely on the private philanthropic side. It really is a libertarian paradise. Though its moneyed libertarians always seem to require a ranch or a river property or a place in Colorado as a retreat from that paradise.

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