Joel Kotkin’s recent article on housing, in NewGeography, is worth a read, but here’s a key point that pops up here and there throughout (emphasis added):
[MIT economist Matthew] Rognlie concluded that much of [the economic inequality resulting from redistribution of housing wealth away from the middle class] was due to land regulation, and suggested the need to expand the housing supply and reexamine the land-use regulation that he associates with the loss of middle-class wealth. Yet in much of the country, housing has become so expensive as to cap upward mobility, forcing many people to give up on buying a house and driving many—particularly young families—to leave high-priced coastal regions for less expensive, usually less regulated markets in the country’s interior.
Homeownership is both a step toward and an indicator of upward mobility, and it is therefore healthiest when there’s a relatively smooth spectrum of options, so families can move up to new levels, if they wish, even if it happens over generations. In their typical self-serving way, when government officials attempt to solve this problem (mostly, one suspects, to expand their authority and reshape the electorate to their own benefit), they wind up making it worse.
Examining, for example, the maps and plans for RhodeMap RI and its “smart growth,” with its attempt to export bits of the city into every suburban town, the most likely effect will be to create an even greater chasm between the heavily subsidized areas of “affordable housing” in the “urban services” areas and the heavily regulated areas of housing beyond them. To make the leap from government dependency in a designated, dense housing area to the independence beyond its limits will require something akin to winning the lottery for families that are not already there.
One must also wonder whether families will actually reap the financial, psychological, and social benefits of home ownership when it is beyond dispute that they don’t really own anything at all. Under the progressive vision for government and housing, we’re all ultimately renters of government property and houses. The one innovation that stands as a nod toward property rights (giving the illusion thereof, some might argue) is that the renters of government property will have the right to sell their leases to new tenants.
Here’s Kotkin on the consequences:
Following our current path, we can expect our society—particularly in deep blue states—to move ever more toward a kind of feudalism where only a few own property while everyone else devolves into rent serfs. The middle class will have little chance to acquire any assets for their retirement and increasingly few will choose to have children. Imagine, then, a high-tech Middle Ages with vast chasms between the upper classes and the poor, with growing dependence—even among what once would have been middle-class households—on handouts to pay rent. Imagine too, over time, Japanese-style depopulation and an ever more rapidly aging society.
He is wrong on two counts, I believe, that are critical if we’re to avoid these consequences. Kotkin’s first error is in failing to warn that government can become the landlord under the illusion of individual ownership. His second error is to imagine that declining birth rates are the result of considered financial decisions that families are making, rather than part of a broader change in social beliefs.
In that regard, being Joel Kotkin, he can’t resist suggesting that Republicans should adjust their policy to accommodate the social liberalism of younger Americans (because social liberalism is one of his irreducible values, it appears). If homeownership and upward mobility facilitated through housing really affect birthrates (which is a questionable claim, to say the least) it will be because of an enhanced sense of independence and individuals’ position within the universe — from God to family to community.