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Addison Del MastroFebruary 15, 2024
Two boys stand on a swing set in front of a modern, mid-rise apartment building.A family-friendly neighborhood does not always mean detached houses with backyards. (iStock)

The cost and supply of housing has gone from a problem associated with a handful of high-growth cities to a national crisis. Anybody who has moved in the last three years understands this. Calls to loosen zoning restrictions and repeal parking space requirements for apartment buildings in the hope of spurring housing production have become mainstream.

Whether we are homeowners or renters, singles or retirees, parents or parents-to-be, the housing crisis affects all of us. But what does it demand of us as Catholics?

If people are good—if babies and families are good—the housing they need must also be good.

Perhaps the most relevant element of the Catholic ethic here is the idea that people are good. Pope Francis affirms this in his encyclical “Laudato Si’,” in which, contra Malthusian fears about overpopulation, he argues that even concern for the earth cannot be placed above the dignity of the human person:

Concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties? (No. 120)

Using the not-surprising example of abortion, Francis articulates the broader Catholic conviction that no public policy which contradicts the principle that people are good can itself be good. Likewise, no apparent good that relies on the negation of this principle is worth keeping.

This may seem easy enough. But people do not exist in a vacuum. Recognizing their dignity or accommodating their needs is not just an intellectual exercise. Their needs must be provided for concretely in the real world, and one of those needs is housing.

If people are good—if babies and families are good—the housing they need must also be good. Housing is an extension of people and of the family, and when babies grow up, they become neighbors. But in American politics, these concerns have been separated and siloed.

I have never seen a bumper sticker that says Pro-life, Pro-family, Pro-housing. But these things are not separate or separable.

I have never seen a bumper sticker that says Pro-life, Pro-family, Pro-housing. But these things are not separate or separable. In the Catholic sense, they are all part of a seamless garment. As Mark Shea once wrote in the National Catholic Register, this body of teaching “puts the human person at the center of things, instead of things such as possessions and ideologies at the center of the human person.”

Does this mean Catholics should never oppose new housing? What about objections to ugly new buildings, or traffic, or rapidly increasing density leading to a sense of overcrowding? Are these illegitimate concerns? I would not argue that, and housing policy is certainly one of those matters on which Catholics may freely argue and disagree.

I would instead frame this issue this way: At least in our country’s higher-growth, most housing-deficient regions, it may be necessary to choose between the needs of people and our preferences for the built environment around us. We might have an image of what a “family-friendly neighborhood” looks like: detached houses with yards, for example. But a family-friendly neighborhood could instead be a neighborhood that the average family can afford, and it may look different than our ideal. It may be the case that putting the human person and the family first requires letting go of certain aesthetic preferences.

It should give NIMBY-ish Catholics pause just how easily we can slip from griping over a jammed parking lot or bland architecture into opining that there are “too many people” or muttering, over yet another new housing development, “cancer is growth, too.” These sentiments are closed off to us Catholics.

It should give NIMBY-ish Catholics pause just how easily we can slip from griping over a jammed parking lot or bland architecture into opining that there are “too many people.”

There is nothing wrong with preferring continuity in our built surroundings. But if wiping a neighborhood off the map is one extreme, the other extreme is the “historic district,” which declares that urban growth is over. To argue that a new building in an old town contradicts the character of the place would be like arguing that translating the Bible into new languages contradicts Scripture. We can instead understand new growth as the latest note in an ancient song, participation in one long, unfolding moment.

Retaining the general character of existing places that are already well-loved does not need to mean stasis. It is possible to add and grow in continuity with what already exists. The old cities of Europe, or even America’s small towns and old urban cores, may appear, in broad strokes, as they did decades or centuries ago. Yet that continuity of appearance veils a lot of organic change. What you don’t notice is the removed or erected wall to shrink or grow a retail space; the side or rear unit on a house; the floor added or removed from a downtown building; the permeable border between hotel, boarding house, small apartment building, mansion. Such small-scale incremental change is not sufficient to meet housing needs everywhere; it should not be a goal over and above the people it serves. But it is an example of what is possible in many American communities that have seen hardly any growth except of the horizontal sprawl variety.

But most of all, what Catholics must contribute to the housing debate is that, whichever policies are adopted, housing is a means to an end, that of the person and the family. In Reflections on the Revolution in France, the political philosopher Edmund Burke, though an Anglican, described a worldview compatible with the Catholic ethic when he wrote of the state, “As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”

Urbanism and the YIMBY (Yes, in My Back Yard) take on housing are particular applications of this idea. The neighborhood is the state, in this conception, writ small. It is difficult to communicate to NIMBYs—many of whom simply like the places they now live in—that the quiet stasis they demand is a cost exacted on the future, on individuals and families who are no less real for not being currently physically present. Our cities, towns and neighborhoods, like the Sabbath, are made for man, and it is dignified and wonderful work to carry on the process of making them.

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