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Richard Kahlenberg on ‘snob zoning’, NIMBYism, and class-based housing discrimination

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Podcast & Video

This episode of Hub Dialogues features Richard Kahlenberg, a non-resident scholar at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, about his provocative new book, Excluded: How Snob Zoning, NIMBYism, and Class Bias Build the Walls We Don’t See.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, and Spotify. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation and The Linda Frum & Howard Sokolowski Charitable Foundation.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Richard Kahlenberg, a non-resident scholar at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy and a leading voice on economic and educational opportunity, including the need to better integrate people of different backgrounds and experiences in schools and neighbourhoods. His latest book, Excluded: How Snob Zoning, NIMBYism, and Class Bias Build the Walls We Don’t See, extends this class-based analysis to the subject of housing. I’m grateful to speak with him about the book, including the costs and consequences of these exclusionary housing policies, which, counterintuitively, he argues are often found in liberal cities that have progressive views about equality. Richard, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and congratulations on the book.

RICHARD KAHLENBERG: Great. Well, thanks so much for having me, Sean.

SEAN SPEER: I was really excited to read the book and speak with you because your analysis has a lot of relevance for Canada, which is presently in the midst of a housing affordability crisis. Yet the political and policy discussion has focused primarily on the intergenerational dynamics at play, but not so much the ways in which it has powerful class-based consequences. Why do you think that is? What explains, in your mind, the neglect of class considerations when we think and talk about housing?

RICHARD KAHLENBERG: Well, I think across North America, there is a hesitancy to talk about class. We often frame issues in terms of race, in terms of gender, or in terms, as you’re suggesting, age cohorts, but people aren’t comfortable with the notion of class. We were meant to distance ourselves from our parents in Great Britain. And so when you go to England, you can talk about class, and everyone understands exactly what you’re saying immediately. I think, at least in the United States, there’s less of that desire to acknowledge class questions. So even politicians on the Left will talk about middle-income families or working families rather than working-class families. It’s part of our tradition. But when you dig down a little bit deeper and talk to people, they fully understand the class dynamics that are going on in housing and in all sorts of arenas.

SEAN SPEER: Today in the City of Toronto—Canada’s most dynamic job-creating city—the average monthly rent is now more than $3,000 per month, and a household must be in the top 90 percentile of earners to be able to afford a condo. This has created a perverse dynamic in which the working-class people who fill critical jobs in the city, including servers and waitresses, childcare workers, garbage collectors, et cetera, can’t afford to live there. They have to commute long drives to serve those who can. Talk about that dynamic and its inherent political and social consequences, including for the perpetuation of inequality.

RICHARD KAHLENBERG: Yeah. Well, you put your finger on a really important problem. Workforce housing is scarce where it needs to be, and that has a couple of important implications. One is, at least within the United States, people are not moving to opportunity the way they used to; they’re moving to affordability. So it used to be that during the 20th century, white Oakies from Oklahoma would move to California during the Great Depression. Black people had the great migration to the North, in part to get away from racial oppression in the Jim Crow South but also because there were better job opportunities, and now that happens less often. And as you’re suggesting, when you need to live in a metropolitan area, working-class people are pushed to the periphery, and that means long commutes, which is bad for those individuals. The rate of divorce, the rate of psychological depression, the heart attacks—all sorts of things are associated with those miserable commutes.

And to the extent that they’re in automobiles, this is bad for everyone. It’s bad for the planet. And in many parts of the country, both countries, we’re seeing shortages of workers. And that’s related to this phenomenon. It’s not just working-class people; there are teachers in California who can’t afford to live in the communities where they’re teaching. There was one California community where the superintendent sent out an advertisement to the parents and said, “Please rent a room to a teacher because we can’t recruit people.” So it’s a problem, particularly for workers, but it’s a problem for everyone.

SEAN SPEER: I would just say in parentheses, Richard, two phrases that have come to have resonance in the housing policy debate in Canada “are drive until you qualify,” which is self-explanatory and the second is “musical chairs,” where you have middle-class Torontonians moving into the periphery in search of housing affordability and then pushing working-class citizens from those peripheral towns further out into the periphery because of their outbid on housing. So, as you say, it has implications across the class spectrum and increasingly across regions in and around our most dynamic cities. It leads to the obvious question: What’s going on? What has produced these dynamics in Canadian cities as well as American ones? What’s the relative role of, say, market forces and government policy?

RICHARD KAHLENBERG: Well, as the New York Times said, this is one of the perhaps rare areas where government really is the problem to use Ronald Reagan’s famous phrase. This is an area where local governments consciously reduce the supply of housing by passing exclusionary zoning laws. So these are the laws that your listeners are probably familiar with. Those that say, “You’re welcome to this community so long as you can afford a detached single-family home. And sometimes we’re going to require it to have a minimum lot size. And if there is multifamily housing, we may require that there be this expensive brick siding rather than something that would be more affordable.”

So it’s a conscious effort to exclude those of a more modest means who are seen and by some as “undesirable neighbours.” And to a lesser extent, I don’t know that this is as conscious, but the effect certainly is to limit the supply of housing. When you have artificial constraint of supply, you will drive up prices. I mean, we saw that during COVID. There was, because of supply chain problems, a shortage of cars. And so the price of used cars just went up dramatically. And we, in essence, have a perpetual supply chain issue of sorts—an artificial constraint on supply when local governments say that builders cannot build housing where people want it.

SEAN SPEER: As you say, the book criticizes various types of zoning policies, such as restrictions on multifamily residents that act as a form in your words of economic discrimination against working-class citizens. You even call some of these policies, as you set out in the book’s subtitle “snob zoning.” I want to take up a point you made in your last answer: how conscious do you think they are? Are they, generally speaking, intentionally designed to exclude working-class people, including racial minorities? Or is this an unintended consequence of other motivations like aesthetic preferences, or maximizing property values, or whatever? Put differently, Richard, do snobs know they’re snobs?

RICHARD KAHLENBERG: Well, not all of them. Not all of them. I don’t want to say that anyone who lives in an exclusive community that has exclusionary zoning is a bad person. I certainly don’t think that to be true. I have lots of friends who live in exclusive communities, and they’re usually choosing a community based on the strong local public schools, and no one can fault them for that. But where I do have some trouble is with folks who ardently defend existing exclusionary policies when the evidence is clear that it does such enormous harm to others. And so when you get into the debates about changing exclusionary zoning, so for example, moving from single-family exclusive zoning to allowing duplexes and triplexes. It’s fascinating to see how people respond because if it were merely aesthetics, you wouldn’t see the arguments come up as they do that the people are looking to be separate and apart from undesirable neighbours.

I’ve had I’ve written a lot about this topic in recent years, and I had one New York Times op-ed saying, “We should open up housing laws.” And people would write the most interesting responses about you don’t realize what it’s like to live around poor people. They’re louder. I had one guy who said their dogs bark louder than other dogs. So part of this is clearly very, very conscious.

Reihan Salam in the Atlantic pointed to some polling in California, which suggested people don’t want to relax zoning restrictions in part because they’re worried that undesirable neighbours will bring crime; they will bring bad behaviours. And so this is, to my mind, pretty clearly an example of class discrimination, which has a huge racial component to it as well. I’m not saying the people who for exclusionary zoning are racist. What I’m saying is the class discrimination has a racial impact.

SEAN SPEER: Yeah. Let me take up that precise point. The book documents how the consequences of restrictive or exclusionary zoning disproportionately affects certain groups more than others, including ratio minorities. Richard, talk about the distributional consequences of these policies.

RICHARD KAHLENBERG: Yeah. Well, I mean, to begin with, there was explicit racial zoning. And so throughout much of the American South, in particular, there were laws that forbade Black people from moving into white neighbourhoods. That was struck down in 1917. But then the workaround was class zoning, the requirements of minimum lot sizes, and the bans on multifamily housing, which had the effect of excluding racial minorities. Today, though, I think we have morphed to more of a system of class discrimination that isn’t necessarily designed to exclude by race but clearly has that effect. So we see in places like Prince George’s County, Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C., that wealthy Black people will exclude poorer Black people. And there are places in Wisconsin and other states where wealthy whites exclude poor whites. So it’s not strictly racial in character, but because of a history of segregation, and enslavement, and redlining, Black people have fewer resources on average than white people. So it’s a very predictable result of class discrimination that we see racial discrimination come out of it.

SEAN SPEER: Let me just pick up on those observations, Richard, because you’re someone who has spent a lifetime thinking and writing about the sources and causes of inequality in American life and what can be done to address them. In an accompanying op-ed associated with the book in July, you wrote, “Housing segregation by race and class is a fountainhead of inequality in America.” Why don’t you elaborate on that idea? Have you come to the view through your research and scholarship that addressing these housing issues may be the most important thing that policymakers can do to make progress on an anti-equality agenda?

RICHARD KAHLENBERG: Absolutely. So there’s a mountain of research from Raj Chetty at Harvard and others that where you live determines how well you’re going to do, in the United States at least. And we see that time and time again. There’s recent research that looks at friendships and the role that friendships play in determining how one does economically, and social mobility is determined precisely by location. They can map it to the census tract. And so when policies, in essence, segregate people and keep people out of certain high-opportunity communities, you’re condemning those families and the kids to an unequal playing field. And I came at the issue of housing through education. I spent 25–30 years writing about educational opportunity. And one of the key social science findings is that spending matters in education, but integration matters more. That is to say that low-income students, when given the opportunity to attend an economically mixed school, will, on average, be as much as two years academically ahead of low-income students who are stuck in high-poverty environments where everyone around them is poor. And so reducing the discriminatory zoning policies is key to making sure that there’s equal educational opportunity in both our countries.

SEAN SPEER: What explains, in your mind, Richard, the disconnect between a progressive politics, which puts equality at the centre of its understanding of the economy and society, and the perpetuation of these types of policies in liberal cities? What accounts for the cognitive dissonance?

RICHARD KAHLENBERG: Yeah, this was one of the things that I found most disturbing in the research. I’m a liberal Democrat and take pride in that. I think a lot of liberal Democrats care about inequality, and yet the very worst forms of exclusionary zoning are found in the most aggressive areas of the country. The people who are against building a wall to Mexico are nevertheless at least willing to go along with terribly exclusionary zoning laws. And I think there’s a benign explanation and then a not-so-benign explanation. So one of the benign explanations is that liberals care a lot about democracy, “small d” democracy and want people to have a say in how our affairs are run. And that’s a positive impulse. But we’ve seen that both the environmental concern and the democracy concern have been weaponized by not-in-my-backyard forces to exclude today. And so, that’s unfortunate.

The last benign explanation for why you see the worst forms of exclusionary zoning in liberal areas goes to something that Fareed Zakaria mentioned. He observed that if the cardinal sin of the Right is racism, the cardinal sin of the Left is elitism. And there’s some social science research to back this up. There was experimental research that looked at people who had higher levels of education and their attitudes. And it turns out that, as one would hope and expect, more education meant less racial prejudice. So that’s the positive side of things. Unfortunately, it also turned out that more educated people had much more negative views of those with less education. Kind of something that may have been captured by Hillary Clinton’s famous statement about deplorables. So there is an elitism that goes along with liberalism today. It’s not a necessary attachment, but an unfortunate one. And that may help explain why exclusionary zoning persists in these very, very liberal areas.

SEAN SPEER: Let me put an idea to you and get your reaction. I mentioned before we started recording that these issues have risen to the forefront of Canadian politics in recent months. And counterintuitively, it’s the leader of the federal Conservative Party, Pierre Poilievre, who, up until now, has stole the march on these issues. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government are increasingly matching the Conservatives, but they start a bit behind the Conservatives in identifying the challenge and putting forward solutions. I’ve heard the argument that conservatives might counterintuitively be better placed to address these issues because they start with relatively low levels of support in major cities. In other words, the political costs associated with pushing for reforms to zoning may be lower than for progressive politicians who start with relatively high levels of public support and, in turn, may face greater political costs for championing some of the reforms that you and others have put forward. What do you think of that line of thinking?

RICHARD KAHLENBERG: Well, that’s a fascinating analysis. And there may be something to that, but I think there are a couple of larger points I’d like to make. One is that there are liberal reasons and there are conservative reasons to want to reform zoning. So, for example, the very conservative Republican governor of Montana passed and signed a major piece of legislation to reduce exclusionary zoning because he sees it as unleashing the free market. This is basically deregulation, getting government out of the way, and that’s appealing to a lot of conservatives. And there’s a property rights angle to it as well. “I should be able to do what I want with my own property. If I want to subdivide it and have two houses here, why is the government telling me I can’t?”

I think at the same time, we’ve seen most of the reform in the United States in progressive areas, in part because that’s where the biggest problem is. But in part because liberals care about reducing exclusion, about civil rights, about the environment, about low-income people, and homelessness that results from unaffordable housing prices. So this is one of those rare cases where liberals and conservatives can come together from very different vantage points. Usually, when there’s a compromise, it means that each side has given up 50 percent. This is not one of those cases. This is a case where both sides can come to the same policy conclusion, which is that we ought to allow more housing by changing our zoning laws from very, very different vantage points. The final thing I’ll say is that even though you raised this really interesting point that progressives have more to lose because many of their constituents are for exclusionary zoning. But in the states of California and Oregon, it was a different coalition that brought about change. It was basically a rural-urban coalition against, in essence, the wealthy suburbs. And so reform would not have passed in either state if there hadn’t been some Republican support because Democrats were divided. Basically, Democrats in low-income and working-class areas wanted reform, and the wealthy areas did not. And there were enough Republicans from rural areas that also felt excluded and looked down upon that came around to supporting reform.

SEAN SPEER: One challenge with fixing the problem, as you identified in the book, is that we’re forced to work with the built environment as it’s evolved over decades. The City of Toronto is a good example. The downtown core is hyper-dense with a lot of high-rise buildings and then much of the rest of the city is low-density with single-family or semi-detached homes. How do you overcome the limits of the preexisting built environment beyond simply on the margins?

RICHARD KAHLENBERG: Well, we’ve seen an expansion in a number of communities of missing middle housing that can have a big impact on the overall number of housing units available and therefore the level of affordability. So, for example, in Los Angeles, they have legalized accessory dwelling units, the backyard or garage apartments and have seen an explosion in the number of people who are able to live in that type of housing. Now, not everyone makes that change, but thousands have. And so, without tearing down anything, people have been able to expand the supply of housing. The other alternative is, particularly in highly desirable areas, it is affordable or it’s profitable, I should say, for a builder to take an existing single-family home and build a duplex or a triplex, or a quad. And if you do that many times over, you can have a big impact. What typically happens today is it a smaller single-family home is replaced by a McMansion. And so it’s not as if development and redevelopment has stopped in these communities; it’s that it’s the wrong kind of development. And it’s possible you could just build a triplex where it had been a small single-family home. And rather than making it a mansion, let three families live in that area.

SEAN SPEER: It brings us now to the book’s recommendations. Richard, what do you think is needed to overcome the monopoly of rules and regulations that have contributed to the unequal status quo? Talk, in particular, about your idea of an Economic Fair Housing Act and how it might work.

RICHARD KAHLENBERG: Yes. Well, I think the states and localities have paved the way to show that it’s very popular to legalize missing middle housing. And so I think that’s an important first step. But in addition, I’d like to see something more dramatic, what I’m calling an Economic Fair Housing Act, which would allow people who are harmed by local government laws that exclude them to sue in federal court. And the burden would shift to the municipality to justify why they have banned multifamily housing in large swathes of the community, why they’re requiring a half-acre lot in certain areas. And in many cases, this has been a technique that’s been used in civil rights law. And when the burden shifts to the locality, they oftentimes will settle and come up with a new alternative that opens up housing.

But what I like about the concept of an Economic Fair Housing Act is not just how it would work on the ground, but that it moves the issue or highlights for people that the existing policies are not just ill-advised; they’re wrong. People now recognize that it’s wrong to discriminate based on race. And people would be horrified if they were accused of discriminating based on race. And yet we have these pervasive policies that discriminate based on class, and the concept of the Economic Fair Housing Act is meant to elevate the issue of class discrimination to something comparable to that of racial discrimination. I still think racial discrimination is worse, but the basic concept that a zoning law should be put in place to keep other people out of a community because there’s something about those fellow citizens that is so beneath those living in the wealthy communities that these others ought to be quarantined is just deeply offensive. And I think the Economic Fair Housing Act is meant to underline that point.

SEAN SPEER: You mentioned Reihan Salam, the president of the Manhattan Institute, earlier. I should just say in parentheses that Reihan is a past guest of Hub Dialogues and a friend of mine. He wrote something of a review of the book in July, in which, while he broadly agreed with your analysis, he warned, as a prudential matter, that your recommendations might create a backlash that strengthens the forces of NIMBYism, including from those who take exception to the idea that they’re snobs. If durable progress requires coalition building, what in your mind, Richard, is the best means in favour of creating the political conditions for zoning reform?

RICHARD KAHLENBERG: I should say I’m not a friend of Reihan Salams, but I respect him. I think he’s a smart individual who’s outlined some provocative ideas. So I read what he says with interest and respect. Having said that, I was really astonished to see the argument that calling out class discrimination was somehow going to hurt the sensibilities of individuals and therefore undercut a potential political coalition.

My point is not that people living in exclusive communities are like Bull Connor who are really terrible people. It’s rather to try to educate people about the harms that are associated with the policies that they probably just took for granted and didn’t think much about. My evidence here is that the moral arguments can make a difference. Go to places like Minneapolis, Arlington, Virginia, and others where deeply liberal communities that had quite exclusionary policies changed those policies, and they appealed to racial justice; they appealed to economic justice; they appealed to environmental concerns. And so my point is not to demonize anyone. It’s rather to open people’s eyes to the fact that these are invisible walls that have been built around privileged communities that need to need to come down.

My other quarrel with Reihan Salam’s argument was he assumed that the only possible way to pass zoning reform, which is something by the way he supports, is to appeal to the vast majority of people in exclusionary communities. I think we’ve seen in California, Oregon, and elsewhere that you can build a different kind of bipartisan coalition that doesn’t rely on majorities from exclusive communities. That basically, yes, they’re very deeply concerned in these exclusive communities about their property values, but one person’s property value concerns is another person’s housing affordability crisis. And so the numbers are there. There are just many more people who are concerned about the current system than want to defend it today.

SEAN SPEER: The Hub recently published an article in which the author described “the housing theory of everything,” which is to say, housing affordability challenges have come to influence economic growth, productivity, equality, politics, and so on. Paint a picture of the broad-based effects of a new political and policy consensus in favour of a more inclusive housing policy.

RICHARD KAHLENBERG: Yeah, I’m hoping people can imagine a world in which individuals or developers could build housing where people want it. And as a result, we had reduced greenhouse gases because people weren’t on these terrible long commutes. Where there was greater educational opportunity for students because we weren’t segregating low-income families as dramatically as we are today through residential zoning. A place where families didn’t have to worry about buying medicine or making rent because there was abundant supply of housing and so there wasn’t this intense need to devote so many of the resources to housing. And where people could move to the parts of the country where they wanted to live because they’re the best jobs and not have to worry about the fact that housing is insanely expensive.

And finally, I’m imagining a place where our democracy was stronger and less polarized because people of different backgrounds, different races, different economic groups had a chance to get to know each other as neighbours and talk about sports, and talk about their kids, and not just see the see one another as, as enemies or opponents. And so I think that—well, I don’t want to overstate this but I do believe that the exclusionary zoning laws we have in this country that are doing so much harm that they’re really central to so many of the problems that we’re trying to address. And it’s time really to begin tearing down those walls.

SEAN SPEER: Final question: Are you optimistic, Richard, that your ideas and arguments are finding traction?

RICHARD KAHLENBERG: Well, I’m optimistic that, whether it’s my personal arguments or whether it’s the general discussion in America and in Canada, I am optimistic that we’re seeing change. So when I started researching Excluded about seven years ago, there were not a lot of examples of success that I could point to. And then in 2018, Minneapolis opened the floodgates and said, “We’re going to get rid of exclusionary single-family zoning. We’re going to legalize duplexes and triplexes everywhere in the community.” And then a number of states made reform. Now we’re seeing it in blue states and red states in America and I know that there’s been progress in Canada as well. So I am optimistic that the forces in support of a deeply unfair system are eroding and that we’re seeing real dynamics of change in both countries.

SEAN SPEER: That’s a good place to wrap up our conversation. The book is Excluded: How Snob Zoning, NIMBYism, and Class Bias Build the Walls We Don’t See. Richard Kahlenberg, thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

RICHARD KAHLENBERG: Thank you so much. Appreciate it.

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