Madison is currently in the early stages of the planning process to sponsor the development of a modest number of affordable housing units. This would only create a small amount of new affordable housing in town, but even so it represents a step in a direction that every Madisonian should be excited about.
The development is part of a plan for Madison to meet its obligations for affordable housing as set forth by the Mount Laurel decision, which ruled that municipalities are forbidden from using land use regulations as a means to block construction of affordable housing for low-income families. While considered controversial by some, the Mount Laurel decision deserves to be recognized as a monumental achievement in securing the rights of New Jersey residents.
State and local governments enjoy substantial amounts of autonomy across a number of different domains. While this may be desirable for various reasons, the fact is that these entities frequently use their power to violate the rights of their own citizens, requiring the intervention of another government entity. For example, the 15th amendment forbids states from denying the vote to citizens on the basis of race or past enslavement, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 strengthened these protections. The list of court rulings and laws barring state and local government from excluding citizens from obtaining an education or from participating in the democratic process could go on and on.
Much like policies that targeted poor people and people of color from education and from the vote, exclusionary land use regulations are also largely driven by racial animus and hostility towards the poor. Shelter is a basic need for human survival and flourishing, and municipalities who use land use regulations to deny would-be residents from securing this need are engaging in a serious violation of rights. Thus far, the Mount Laurel decision has had some encouraging success in limiting these abuses.
While Madison must meet it’s affordable housing obligation under the decision, building affordable housing in Madison is the right plan on its own merits. Housing policy in the United States has been an abject failure, and the new construction in town would represent a small step to begin to reverse this. To understand why, first note that the price of a house or the rent for an apartment is not solely based on the house’s ability to provide shelter and comfort to its occupants. Instead, the price is largely determined by the desirability of the location of the house or apartment. That means that house price appreciation and rental income is mostly not the result of the productive efforts of property owners, but instead is a transfer of value that is created by workers and by public investment into to the hands of private property owners. This gives property owners a financial incentive to push for exclusion, since exclusion allows them to increase the amount of money they squeeze from workers and the public. We should be especially aware of this dynamic in the Rose City, where the surplus generated by the municipally owned utilities is used to offset below-average property tax rates.
This is not some abstract theory. We can see a staggering picture in the housing data from the past few decades. Nationwide, apartments were being built at a rate of 25 apartments per 100 new residents in the 70s. Owing to exclusionary zoning as well as other factors, by the 2000s the pace of construction rapidly decelerated to just 10 apartments per 100 new residents. Over the same time period, the percentage of cost-burdened renters (that is, renters who pay over 30% of their income in rent) leapt from 35% to 50% while the share of national economic activity taken by landlords and property owners nearly doubled. None of these things happened by accident. They are the deliberate consequences of housing policy that is designed to enforce economic and racial segregation and to redistribute wealth from the propertyless to property owners.
It is of course true that some exclusionists neither have racist nor selfish financial motives, and instead have strong reservations about any sort of change in their community. The typical claim is that concerned residents feel that exclusion will “preserve” their communities. However, preservation by exclusion is a false promise, because exclusion fundamentally undermines the conditions that allow communities to grow and thrive. In fact, anyone who has enjoyed Madison’s vibrant downtown should place affordable housing as a top priority.
New neighbors mean new business for Madison’s shops and restaurants, and that is just one of the ways that housing affects Madison’s economy. Exclusionist policies ultimately take money out of the hands of renters and workers and put it in the hands of property owners. On average, that’s a transfer of money from younger, less economically secure individuals to people who tend to be older and on a more steady economic footing. Aside from the inequity of this, younger and lower-income people are more likely to spend as opposed to save additional disposable income, and a substantial portion of that money ends up spent in local economies. An increase in the stock of affordable housing would reduce or at least limit the growth of expenses for current Madison renters, meaning Madison’s businesses not only get new customers, but old customers with more cash in hand.
Exclusion doesn’t just take away potential business from Madison’s economy, it also makes it harder Madison’s businesses to find the workers they need to function. If the people who work in Madison can not afford to live in Madison, they will have to look elsewhere for a home and commute. But exclusionsists are everywhere, and the communities surrounding Madison have also become more expensive, which makes it difficult for someone who works in Madison to even live near Madison. This leads to more traffic congestion, and less transit use. It also places a substantial burden on low wage workers, and recent studies have found that long commutes trap people in poverty. At some point, workers can no longer justify the time and expense of a commute for a job that may only pay $12 or $15 per hour or even less. With the recent opening of a few popular new restaurants, Madison’s economy may seem fine for now, but the fact that Madison is becoming increasingly unaffordable is an early signal of trouble ahead.
For the readers with good-faith concerns about the future of Madison, I hope that you take into consideration the fact that exclusion is not only an unjust and exploitative practice, but also a recipe for stagnation and ultimately for decay. For the readers who are bristling at the thought of perhaps having to settle for a slightly slower rate of property appreciation, I’m not sure what to tell you. If I wrote this paper to demand that the government create a false scarcity of bicycles by suppressing their production below the level needed because I felt entitled to a higher resale price for bikes I own, I’m pretty sure I would get laughed at, and rightfully so. Yet this is exactly what many exclusionists are demanding, and the consequences of affordable housing shortages are far more severe than a hypothetical shortage of bicycles. Unfortunately, the only reason anyone takes these demands seriously is because of the wildly disproportionate political influence property owners have.
While I worry that the number of affordable units to be built under the current proposal is much too small, I’m encouraged to see that the municipal government is giving the issue of affordable housing the attention it deserves. I applaud the planning board, Mayor Conley, and the town council for their efforts thus far, and urge them to consider increasing the number of affordable units that the town will sponsor in the future.