Art of the Actual: a Modest Proposal for Housing Reform by Results

fully automated luxury abundant California housing, the easy way.

From the trenches of California housing reform, the essential Chris Elmendorf of UC Davis offered another valuable report recently. The housing planners have issued spreadsheets:

I applaud progress and good-faith effort, and anyone still with us on this long walk to freedom. However, these hard-won steps still seem, to we of the impatient and marginally housed sort, rather hypothetical and capacious still. They seem right in the time-honored tradition of putting much hope on (or diverting much responsibility to) conventional, commercial developers. Also, showing fallacies of planning, e.g. that needs or efficient responses are specifiable well in advance, and that what matters is what’s zoned for or even built, vs what’s available to home-seekers.

Recognizing that politics is the art of the actual, & for opponents often the art of the inactual, still I’m curious what hypothetically could be actualized with straight-up empirical metrics and performance measures.

So, to consider for a moment an alternative, stretch perspective — pull up out of the trenches to say, a high-flying reconnaissance spy-plane mode of analysis — let’s imagine how some fully automated abundant housing mandating and achieving might work:

1. Jurisdictions (jx) are classified Low Affordability (LA) if current, measured, median or 30th %ile dweller housing price/rent is above some ratio to income for jx, area, or state.

2. By the way, implement a mandatory rental registry for all landlords, for many good reasons including getting better rent data.

3. Low Affordability jurisdictions are required to annually show a rate of improvement in their affordability index AI, by any means necessary. Could be, by housing or income assistance to lower-income households. Could be, by making everyone better off, helping people get good jobs, I don’t know, go crazy! Full local control of how to do it here.

4. Trading system: LA jurisdictions could also be credited for affordability improvements implemented by arrangement with other jurisdictions. For example, by supporting low-cost/affordable housing projects elsewhere (nearby, or within commute shed) via subsidy or land swap.

I believe that if better encouraged, that is to say forced, states and cities have a lot of capabilities to help affordability that they’re not yet using, often hardly thinking of, such as:

  • public land leasing
  • interim housing
  • mobile & manufactured housing (largely banned in most US cities)
  • facilitating homeshare — there’s loads of spare housing space with empty-nesters, disused housing, etc.
  • local rent assistance
  • subsidizing ADUs
  • ‘challenge’ funding model that’d support the lowest-subsidy-cost new housing proposed.
    (see for example the “Million Month Challenge” of Oregon’s Meyer Trust, social impact bonds, or LA County Homeless Initiative / Proposition HHH Housing Innovation Challenge).

Now of course, most California cities today presumably wouldn’t want to sign up for something like this. Why make us actually achieve results we know better than the State how to plan for?

Nonetheless, it might help reformers & insurgents develop concrete alternative metrics & models to propose, a plausible or at least thought-through different path.

Perhaps advocates might start by demanding then requiring city studies on it (ie hypothetically how they’d comply). Upstart councilmember or county commissioners candidates might run on it, might win, even win majorities in time.

Maybe it can get a succinct banner term, say Right to Affordability #Right2Afford?

#Right2Afford

It’s not quite #Right2Housing, but then, not much policy out there concretely is. This is a data-driven, automatic policy trigger (see also, Automatic zoning), hypothetically concrete approach to policy making. Like Edwards Deming said: in God we trust. All others must bring data.

Update, March 16 2021:
Chris Elmendorf responded with some useful critique, and Rick Hills with clarification question:

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Tim McCormick

editor, @HousingWiki; lead organizer, @VillageCollaborative; organizer/editor, @PDXshelterforum. Portland, OAK, LDN, nomadic. tmccormick at gmail.