For many people on the left, no matter what the question is, the answer is always more government controls. The notion that people might best solve their problems when left free to make their own decisions and negotiate consensually with others rarely occurs to them (unless we’re talking about abortion).
One area where we see this dynamic at play is housing. While many leftists join conservatives to promote NIMBY housing policies—Not In My Back Yard restrictions—some are starting to see the benefits of more housing, especially for the poor. But in most cases they just can’t bear to allow people to build and trade in a free market. If we need housing, then, by golly, government must force the issue.
The fundamental problem with sky-high housing costs is that government restricts the construction of housing and restricts how people may use their housing, as through occupancy limits. The fundamental solution, then, is for government to stop doing those things. When I say I support YIMBY—Yes In My Back Yard policies—I mean we should leave people free to develop and use their property according to their own judgment, consistent with the rights of others.
And by rights I mean rights, not just preferences. In your established residence, you have a right not to breathe toxins emitted by your neighbors or listen to their loud music late at night. You don’t have a right to stop your neighbor from renting out a bedroom, building a “mother in law” unit in the backyard, or replacing a single-family building with a multi-family one.
Getting on Team YIMBY
I am on Team YIMBY, then. The trouble with many leftists, whether they want more or less housing construction, is they are on Team RIMBY—Regulations In My Back Yard. I want freedom; they want government controls.
A caveat regarding housing prices: Part of the issue for the past couple of years is that the pandemic and policies linked to it created both a demand shift and supply problems. As the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas pointed out in December, “The combination of lower interest rates, support for household incomes, a pandemic-related rise in demand for home offices and single-family homes, supply constraints, widespread mortgage forbearance and moratoriums on evictions pushed up house prices.” Beyond that, Colorado is a popular state to move to. None of this changes my general prescription. When demand shifts, we need a more-free market, not a less-free one, to respond.
To reiterate, my advice generally is to stop government from doing all the things it does to make housing costs artificially high. Usually the advice of leftists is to impose more government controls to try to force prices down or force the construction of lower-income housing. But such use of force always results in unintended (or at least unstated) harms.
Back in May I discussed a legislative effort to impose rent controls for mobile home lots. In that case Governor Jared Polis resisted. But last year Polis signed House Bill 1117 allowing local governments to impose rent control on newly built housing. Although not nearly as bad as full-scale rent control, it is still a bone-headed policy.
Rent control discourages property owners from supplying new housing, discourages the upkeep of existing housing, discourages the economic use of housing, and pushes up prices of non-controlled housing. As the Gazette recently argued, “Rent control—soft-pedaled nowadays under euphemisms like ‘rent stabilization’ or ‘inclusionary zoning’—would be a disaster if imposed on Coloradans.”
Tied to dogmatism
Yet the RIMBY left will never learn. For example, the Denver Democratic-Socialist-endorsed Javier Mabrey, a candidate for State House District 1 (who will almost certainly win), recently Tweeted, “Rents are too high and they are rising. But rent stabilization or control ordinances are banned in CO. This crisis hits working families and the poor hardest. We have to fight back. We must end the ban on rent control in Colorado and build more affordable units.”
Mabrey’s rant is the lunacy of dogmatism. The real solution is more supply of housing through freedom, not tighter controls of the housing market that restrict supply. In his Twitter bio Mabrey claims he’s “fighting to keep Coloradans housed.” But, insofar as he endorses such controls, he isn’t. He’s fighting to further screw up the housing market.
I’m not letting conservatives off the hook here. Too often they support zoning restrictions and the like blocking the construction of housing, especially lower-income housing. For the most part I agree: Homelessness is a housing problem. Mabrey is right to be angry about regulations that artificially restrict the supply of housing and jack up prices.
I was encouraged by something that Elisabeth Epps—the other likely state legislator endorsed by the Denver Democratic Socialists—wrote recently. Although Epps has expressed some support for rent control, she also wrote a thoughtful remark about the problems with single-family zoning: “I’ve been reading kinda voraciously about zoning and the more I learn the more I come to understand the nuances of who the voices are that press for just zoning changes (sans rent stabilization) and why.” I hope this marks the start of a developing discussion.
I would like to invite Mabrey, Epps, and others from the left, along with conservatives, to quit Teams NIMBY and RIMBY and join Team YIMBY. I think most of us are aware there’s a problem. I personally have friends who moved out of Colorado because housing is too expensive here. We all see the problem of homelessness in parts of the metro area. Housing is a basic human need. We all should try hard to look beyond our political tribes to form a new broad-based alliance that says yes to housing.
Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.
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