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60 percent of likely voters say they’re in favor of public housing. So why isn’t there more of it?

Americans say they want the government to build affordable housing — but not in their backyards.

A person looking through a window on which is reflected an outdoor urban scene.
Theresa, who has been homeless for much of her life, pauses for photos in the lobby area of an affordable housing complex in Los Angeles. “I understand that recovery centers and halfway housing costs money, but graveyards and hospital beds cost money too, which the taxpayers end up paying anyway,” she said.
Jae C. Hong/AP

As Covid-19 has thrust tens of millions of Americans into housing insecurity and revealed longstanding issues with the nation’s stock of affordable housing, 60 percent of likely voters say they want a public option for housing, according to Data for Progress (DFP).

The progressive polling firm surveyed 1,116 likely voters nationwide on their attitudes around housing, broadband, child care, and infrastructure and provided the results first to Vox. Those results were striking: DFP found majorities in favor of public options for each of those areas.

Regarding creating a public option for housing, DFP asked respondents if they would be in favor of a “proposal where cities or counties build new, affordable housing that people can then rent from and which would compete with private housing options.”

Unsurprisingly, Democrats were most likely to support the policy — and they did so with overwhelming majorities. Just over three-quarters of Democratic voters said they favored a public option for housing, while 64 percent of independent/third-party voters did, and 37 percent of Republican voters did.

There’s strong debate over whether public housing is the solution to America’s housing problems. It has been successful in targeted uses, for example in reducing the homeless veteran population. But as Curbed’s Jeff Andrews reported, America’s public housing stock has declined over the past few decades, and public officials have favored other ways of addressing housing insecurity that were intended to better integrate communities and create mixed-income neighborhoods.

This debate is becoming more heated as America’s homelessness and rental affordability crisis reaches a fever pitch. There were an estimated 500,000 Americans homeless in 2019, before Covid-19 hit; there isn’t good data for what’s happened to the population in 2020, but it’s likely that number has increased since millions of renters struggled to make payments over the past year. There is a simple truth public housing advocates are pointing out: There is simply not enough affordable housing available to service our current population. We have to figure out a way to build more.

But the reality on the ground is hard to square with DFP’s finding that large majorities are in favor of public housing. In practice, Americans typically reject new development precisely in the places where affordable housing is most needed.

Building more housing may be popular in theory, but rarely in practice

While DFP’s poll shows that people may be generally in favor of a public option for housing, when people are confronted with the reality of putting new development in their neighborhood (public or not), they are frequently opposed.

A June 2019 survey by the real estate brokerage firm Redfin of 3,000 US residents who bought or sold a primary residence in the past 12 months or plan to in the following 12 months found that 53 percent of them “support zoning policies that limit housing density near where they live,” while only 27 percent of them “support policies that enable it.”

Chart from Redfin showing racial breakdown in opposition to increased housing density.

Looking beyond polls, we can turn to how homeowners actually respond when affordable housing (or any development, really) is proposed in their neighborhood or near their homes: They reject it.

As Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, who has made solving his city’s affordable housing issues a central component of his time in office, told Vox: “There isn’t some magical place where there’s lots of undeveloped land that is low cost and near major employers. That doesn’t exist in Chattanooga or anywhere else. And yet, if you go to a community meeting, you may think we are purposefully ignoring such an Eden.”

In Neighborhood Defenders, Boston University researchers Katherine Levine Einstein, David M. Glick, and Maxwell Palmer analyze public comments in neighborhood forums in Massachusetts and find only 15 percent of comments were supportive of new housing. In a blog post, the authors write (emphasis added):

These patterns hold across every city and town we study; in liberal Cambridge, MA, a mere 40 percent of meeting participants show up in support of new housing. These figures stand in stark contrast to high levels of support in Massachusetts for new housing and affordable housing, at least in the abstract.

Liberal intuitions would indicate that left-leaning folks would at least be in favor of affordable housing projects that have a demonstrated benefit for vulnerable populations. But in San Francisco (where more than 85 percent of voters chose Joe Biden as their next president), neighbors even opposed a 100 percent affordable housing proposal for at-risk seniors run by two nonprofit developers.

Something DFP’s poll may be picking up is that the people who show up to neighborhood meetings (where much of the opposition to new development is voiced) are frequently unrepresentative of the rest of the population. A paper by the same Boston University researchers looked at meetings in 100 Boston-area communities and found that 95 percent of attendees were white despite being only 80 percent of the studied area’s population. As Curbed’s Patrick Sisson reported, because public meetings are “held at times of day that can make it hard for many people to attend without missing work, usually without day care options, and sometimes in locations not favorable to those with disabilities or who rely on transit, these meetings already exclude many groups before they even start.”

But it’s worth pointing out that this phenomenon, usually referred to as Nimby (“not in my backyard”), is not particular to public housing. Opposition to affordable housing development and even market rate development, particularly in opportunity-rich areas, can be indiscriminate.

So it’s an issue regardless of whether your solution is a massive investment in public housing, extra funding for housing vouchers, reducing regulations for residential development, subsidies for affordable housing — anything that seeks to ameliorate the housing supply problem in places where local homeowners have veto power over development.

Neighbors for More Neighbors — a framework for change

In some ways, this problem is just human nature: People are fiercely protective of their homes and are threatened by change that could destabilize their financial well-being or their way of life. But there’s hope.

On January 19, Sacramento took a major step toward eliminating single-family-only zoning. The Sacramento Bee reported that the council unanimously supported a change to “allow houses across the city to contain up to four dwelling units.” They followed the lead of Minneapolis, Minnesota, which became the first major American city to end the ban on multi-unit homes within its borders in 2019.

For the Atlantic, Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, wrote that in Minneapolis, “housing advocates have succeeded by shifting the focus of public discussion toward the victims of exclusionary zoning. More important, advocates also showed public officials and their own fellow citizens just how numerous those victims are.”

In response to the Boston University researchers’ findings around who shows up to zoning reform meetings, organizers also went to “street fairs, festivals, and churches to gather input on zoning reform from people in low-income and minority communities” under the banner of “Neighbors for More Neighbors.”

Making clear the sheer size of the population harmed by current American policy is the first step. The coalition includes young people moving to cities, would-be parents who have to delay starting a family because their home can’t accommodate another person, seniors who are retiring on a fixed income, and low-income and minority families who have been unable to find housing options near jobs and transit. The people hurt by America’s current housing policy regime far outnumber those who are experiencing some benefits now. It’s a story that has won out in Oregon, Minneapolis, and Sacramento and is building in cities and suburbs nationwide.

The federal government isn’t powerless here. As Matt Yglesias wrote for Vox last July, President Joe Biden has “pick[ed] up a proposal from Sen. Cory Booker and Rep. James Clyburn to require localities that benefit from Community Development Block Grants or Surface Transportation Block Grants to develop plans to change zoning rules that block development of more housing types.” Essentially it would be a “stick” to withhold funding from jurisdictions that are engaged in exclusionary zoning.

Depending on how serious the Biden team is about this, it could generate significant pressure for jurisdictions dependent on these pots of money to create change. One problem is that many of the worst offenders are suburbs of major cities that are not very reliant on federal funding, but this would still be a good start.

The debate over whether public or private units would best solve America’s housing crisis is an important one, but housing advocates will have to unite around zoning reform before anything can get built at all.