Welcoming the stranger means welcoming new housing

Welcome the stranger,” say Americans appalled by the Trump administration’s turning away of Syrian refugees. “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor,” say lawn signs in English, Spanish and Arabic across the United States, responding to political attacks on immigrants. But does that welcome extend to people from just a few miles away?

Escalating rents and home prices have created invisible walls around communities all over the United States. Making matters worse, local governments use zoning laws, density limits, absurd requirements for more parking spaces and “historic district” designations to obstruct new housing where it is most needed, near job opportunities—a clean-hands way of keeping out the strangers who might occupy that new housing.


Sometimes there is specific opposition to low-income or subsidized housing. In January the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development charged the city of Houston with violating the Civil Rights Act by perpetuating racial segregation in its placement of low-income housing. This is part of a pattern stretching across U.S. history. The 2015 HBO miniseries “Show Me a Hero” dramatized a similar battle over the siting of public housing in the suburbs close to New York City.

Escalating rents and home prices have created invisible walls around communities all over the United States.

The lack of affordable housing may be why the “back to the city” movement was so short-lived. New Census data show that Americans are again leaving walkable cities and gravitating to sprawl areas, especially in the South and West, with cheap land and cheaper homes. This may not always be a matter of choice; there is an oversupply of spread-out McMansions because developers have found it easier and more profitable to build ever-larger houses in locations where they do not have to deal with hostile neighborhood groups. In addition to contributing to global warming, this trend brings increasing income segregation, with high-income households claiming city centers and raising the drawbridges to keep everyone else out.

The urban theorist Richard Florida, who once championed the “creative class” as the savior of U.S. cities, now describes a new urban crisis as cities are “carved into gilded and virtually gated areas for conspicuous consumption by the super-rich with vast stretches of poverty and disadvantage for the masses nearby.” He warns of increasing segregation by income level in virtually every major U.S. city, even—and perhaps especially—those growing in the new economy.

Mr. Florida argues that we need to reform zoning and building codes in order to add affordable housing suitable for families in stable neighborhoods and to prevent thriving cities from becoming islands of luxury surrounded by seas of resentment. This resentment may have been a factor in Donald J. Trump’s surprising victory in the Electoral College last year, as he swept the “left behind” parts of the United States.

The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat recently proposed “breaking up” wealthy cities with exorbitant housing costs by shifting government offices from Washington to the heartland and heavily taxing “deep-pocketed elite universities” in places like New York. Mr. Douthat was surely being facetious in proposing a heavier hand of government even as he criticized these same cities as being “rigidly zoned,” but he has identified the hypocrisy of city inhabitants who prize multiculturalism but want their neighborhoods to look the same way they did in the 1950s.

A truly inclusive society must work toward not only universal health care but also decent and affordable housing for all.

There are signs of progress in addressing the affordable housing shortage. Particularly in the West, the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) movement is being challenged by YIMBY (Yes, In My Back Yard) groups that advocate zoning reform and faster construction of housing in economically thriving regions. Last year, the city of Seattle cut funding from the neighborhood district councils that were dominated by older homeowners and that almost reflexively opposed high-density projects, giving more power to citywide commissions that represented renters, low-income households and the homeless. This move recognizes the need for new housing not only in fashionable high-rise districts (which often attract foreign investors and do not help to bring down citywide rents) but throughout major urban areas.

And the problem of exclusionary housing policies is not limited to urban areas. The sociologist Joel Kotkin, a proponent of suburban living and a sparring partner for Mr. Florida for many years, writes that restrictions on new housing have driven up costs all across California and have shut off “aspirational migration” by residents of other states looking for better lives. (While California has welcomed about 800,000 international immigrants so far this decade, it has suffered a net loss of 400,000 residents to other states, many chased out by housing costs.)

Perhaps because it is not seen as a national issue, housing has not always received the attention it deserves. But that may be changing. For example, this spring’s Pulitzer Prize winner for nonfiction, Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, shows in detail how housing instability is now a key factor keeping people in poverty.

A truly compassionate and inclusive society must work toward not only universal health care but also decent and affordable housing for all. And that means more Americans must be willing to accept strangers not just at our country’s borders but on our own blocks.

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