Controversial new research has kicked off a war of words among urban scholars over the push for upzoning to increase citiesâ€™ housing supply.
For a long time, I thought gentrification was the hottest of urbanismâ€™s hot-button issues. That may still be true. But it has a new (and related) challengerâ€”upzoning, or changing the zoning of an area to allow for higher density.
For years, some urban economists and market urbanists have been making the case that the key challenge facing citiesâ€”especially pricey superstar cities and tech hubsâ€”is a lack of housing supply. There are many culprits in this shortage. They include strict land-use regulations and building codes, politically connected NIMBYs, and other factors, but the end result is the same. A lack of housing supply results not only in higher housing prices, but in increased sorting and displacement, which sharpens inequality and segregation. It even limits innovation and productivityâ€”not just in the affected cities, but across the U.S. economy as a whole.
My article on RodrĂguez-Pose and Storperâ€™s paper resulted in a near-immediate barrage of critiques on the internet. David Schleicher of Yale Law School and many others laid into the paper on Twitter. Over at City Observatory, Joe Cortright questioned both the theory and the evidence underlying Storper and RodrĂguez-Poseâ€™s findings (and, in a side shot, my decision to write about them):
RodrĂguez-Pose and Storper sidestep these nuts and bolts issues of how to fix zoning so that it isnâ€™t exclusionary, in favor of a knocking down a straw man claim that upzoning is somehow a cure for inequality, (an argument that no one seems to be making). In the process, they (and by extension, Florida) lend credence to the NIMBY-denialism about the central need to build more housing in our nationâ€™s cities if weâ€™re to do anything to meaningfully address affordability.
(For the record, I have long been a critic of restrictive zoning and building regulations and NIMBYism, going so far as to dub the latter â€śthe New Urban Luddism.â€ť)
On Friday evening, I received an email from three of Storperâ€™s colleagues at UCLA, Michael Manville, Michael Lens, and Paavo Monkkonen. They wrote a detailed essay replying to key claims in the Storperâ€“RodrĂguez-Pose paper, and they shared it with numerous scholars and journalists, which sparked another round of discussion online.
Their response begins by saying that although Storper and RodrĂguez-Pose are esteemed geographers, their paper â€śbadly misses the mark.â€ť Furthermore: â€śIt ignores much of the research on the topic, misstates or misunderstands the research it does cite, presents misleading and oversimplified analyses, and advances an argument that is internally inconsistent.â€ť Like Cortright, the authors accuse Storper and RodrĂguez-Pose of setting up a strawman argument:
For the record, we agree with [Storper and RodrĂguez-Pose] that building market rate housing will not by itself eradicate inequality, or revive declining regions. We also agree that building market rate housing will not, by itself, get everyone in expensive regions properly sheltered. But as far as we can tell everyone agrees with that. Many people (us included) think that more housing in expensive places in necessary for fighting inequality and increasing affordability, but no one we are aware of thinks it is sufficient, i.e. that all we need to do is build more housing.
Manville, Lens, and Monkkonen light into the data and methodology that Storper and RodrĂguez-Pose used to make their argument. For example, they used the percent change in developed land area in a region as a proxy for regulatory stringency. But Manville, Lens, and Monkkonen note that