Joe Cortright spreads the good news that “For Rent” signs are proliferating across Portland, signaling an easing of the affordable housing crisis. And he points out a critical thing that many activists miss. That luxury housing that affordability advocates decry does improve affordability for everyone.
The … myth is that you can’t make housing affordable by building more of it, particularly if new units are more expensive than existing ones. The surge in vacancies in existing apartments is an indication of the interconnectedness of apartment supply, and an illustration of how construction of new high end, market-rate units lessens the price pressure on the existing housing stock. When you don’t build lots of new apartments, the people who would otherwise rent them bid up the price of existing apartments. The reverse is also true: every household that moves into a new apartment is one fewer household competing for the stock of existing apartments. This is why, as we’ve argued, building more “luxury” apartments helps with affordability. As our colleagues at the Sightline Institute recently observed, you can build your way to affordable housing. In fact, building more supply is the only effective way to reduce the pressure that is driving up rents. (Emphasis added.)
Why mention this on a transit blog? Because the mistake activists make here is the same one that many transit advocates make, which is to think of wealth as a set of boxes, called classes, that never intermix or affect each other. It’s the same mistake that underlies the false dichotomy of “choice” and “dependent” riders in transit planning, the notion that you need separate services for each type of rider because they are absolutely different kinds of people who will never mix.
In fact, wealth is a spectrum. People are everywhere along it. Admittedly, this is less true that it once was, but it’s still true. So although people certainly differ in wealth and thus in the options they have, they are still part of the same diverse market — for housing, as for transit. When advocating for a fairer and more equal economic world, don’t lose track of this. Don’t become so focused on us-them differences that you miss the solution that improves things for everyone, including you.