Fri, Apr

Why High Density Will Never Solve the Housing Crisis


iAUDIT! - In my January 22 column, I described how academic theories have been misapplied to justify failed Housing First policies.  The same misapplication of academic and economic theories affects affordable housing policies as well.  Experts like Dick Platkin, with far more knowledge than me about housing, have criticized the push for widespread upzoning and relaxation of zoning measures as ineffective at best.  A strong case can be made that new housing laws, sponsored by density advocates like State Senator Scott Wiener, have done little more than enrich the coffers of corporate developers by adding far more at-or above-market than affordable units. 

If any readers think my previous column was a screed against academia, or if they truly want to be informed on why California’s housing policies aren’t working, I urge them to invest a little more than 90 minutes watching this video from a recent meeting of the California Alliance of Local Electeds. In it, Dr. Michael Storper, UCLA’s Distinguished Professor of Regional and International Development in Urban Planning and Director of Global Public Affairs at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs clearly explains why current policies simply do not work.  Dr. Storper dissects the argument that housing costs will only decrease if there is a dramatic increase in housing stock. He exposes the complete lack of empirical evidence supporting the basic premise that indiscriminately increasing supply will reduce costs.  As he points out, housing costs are a mix of economic, market, and cultural factors. In fact, Dr. Storper directly refuted an assumption Senator Wiener made at a housing and homeless panel discussion on October 27, 2023. Senator Wiener said a single family homeowner may sell a house for $2 million instead of $1 million to a developer who will build a fourplex on the lot, but the cost per unit will only be $500,000. Dr, Storper said that would only be true if the location wouldn’t otherwise support more expensive housing; it could very well sell for $1 million per unit.  High-density advocates ignore the reality of traffic impacts, infrastructure, the cultural desire for a home of one’s own, and a host of other realities. He also described how the traditional liberal/conservative dichotomy as been flipped on its head, with liberals advocating for strong central state control of land use and gutting environmental protections to encourage development. 

Since many advocates support high-density housing as a cure-all for homelessness, we can see why so little progress has been made on both the housing and homelessness fronts.  Despite a flurry of dozens of housing bills from Sacramento, very few affordable housing units have been built, as described by Zelda Bronstein in 48hills,com. At the same time, most homelessness funding has gone towards housing construction, larding the coffers of developers and builders, but doing almost nothing to reduce homelessness. 

Finally, Dr. Storper expressed his disappointment that many fellow academicians fail to admit unbridled densification is not resulting in more affordable housing. Political ideology, backed by a strong media bias for simple solutions, has pushed the high-density agenda despite its failings. 

I urge all readers to make time to watch this informative and enlightening interview.  Unless and until we can have informed and reasonable discussions on housing and homelessness, the small group of special interests will continue to control the narrative, and billions in funding. It is not academia I oppose; it is its misuse to justify policies that have no basis in fact. 

(Tim Campbell is a resident of Westchester who spent a career in the public service and managed a municipal performance audit program.  He focuses on outcomes instead of process.)