Talking Headways Podcast: Housing and The Threat to Our Very Democracy

housing montage

This week, we’re joined by journalist Conor Dougherty to talk about his book, Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America. Dougherty talks about growing up in San Francisco, his literary inspirations for the book, and the arc of some of the real characters portrayed.

For those of you who prefer to read than listen, an excerpted transcript is provided below the player:

Conor Dougherty: I met this scholar in the reporting of all this Michan Connor, you can Google him. And he impressed upon me that city incorporation was actually this hugely under-covered, under-thought-about aspect of this.

Jeff Wood: When I read it, I was like, “Oh my gosh, what did my Grampa do?”

CD: Yeah, so it turns out like the ability to incorporate cities is actually this like hugely under-thought-about thing. I’ve talked to planners about this. I was talking to Carol Galante, who is now the head of the Turner center for housing innovation at Berkeley, but was the head of Bridge Housing for a long time. And she said, “I always knew this, but you really crystallized it for me. I have done some projects that were on county land and we always got the votes because it went to a county board of supervisors and their purview is so much larger than say a city where you just have a city council that will respond to a smaller pool of voters.” You know, there was a chapter in this book, the history chapter, about California and kind of tries to use Jerry Brown and Pat Brown as as mirror images of what California land planning was. And that title of that chapter is “Plans of Oppression.”

And I got that chapter title from the Federalist papers, I think it was James Madison, and he wrote in the Federalist Papers basically about the tyranny of democracy and that if you built a democracy from units that were too small, nobody would ever disagree with each other and you would start to have this group of people that would always kind of oppress the minority view because the minority view would never be big enough to ever have a real chance to exert a counterbalancing force on it.

A great scholar named Robert Ellickson at Yale posited that suburbs and kind of smaller incorporated units are the plans of oppression — that the single family homeowners who control, almost in totality, those local elections are a fundamentally undemocratic group that is so single-mindedly interested in property values and the land around them that they create these plans of oppression.

And so the Steve Falk thing also kind of gets into — though it is his personal story that’s very funny to read — how incorporation becomes these plans of oppression because it is allowing through this kind of technology of contracting that allows cities to form as much smaller units. This is what Michan Connor kind of impressed upon me, that it is creating this kind of municipal technology that allows smaller and smaller units to form and through that basically hands our land policy for big substantial cities over to these tiny, tiny units.

CD: The question I get everywhere from more general audiences is, “What place does this, right? Is there a model we can look at?” So you get some answers like, “Oh, Vienna in 1920.” I mean that’s the like more San Francisco stereotypical or some people say Singapore, where most people live in public housing. Right? I think that’s food for thought. Public housing. I do think it’s important for us to look at places that have totally healthy public housing and say, “That can work here! It doesn’t have to be a disaster like it is here.” But the answer I always give, which freaks people out is, “Look at like Phoenix, look at like Houston.” You know, we talk about the middle class in California as if it’s like, “You know, we like want a strong middle class.” But then politically what are we do? We build a bunch of like really high-end condos and then give a bunch of money for subsidized housing. Like we were not even attempting to hold on to the middle class. Like at all.

When I go to Phoenix or Houston, I’ve spent more time in Phoenix. I meet people who are genuinely middle class. I meet people who are super excited about their future. I meet people who feel like they have a stake, you know, in America. I go on and have conversations with people at Home Depot when I’m, cause I have to go do errands from a mother-in-law in Phoenix, and you start having conversations that people work at home people, they totally own their own homes. They’re very conscious of how their own home repairs go. That’s very different than in the Bay area. I had the same reservations about Phoenix that a lot of kind of, for lack of a better term, urbanist people have, I think public transit is great.  I like density and biking. Minneapolis is kind of my favorite city. I like it. So that’s like my frame.

But I’m also a journalist and as a journalist I’m asking people what they’re doing, not what they think. When I go in and I meet people in those places and when I see how different a place feels, when it really does have a middle class, it’s hard for me not to ask myself, “Should we be learning from them, maybe? Should we be maybe like not writing off Texas. I mean I’m, I know I’m probably speaking music to your ears here, but as some conservative backwater where everyone has their guns…?” I mean I know a lot of people don’t do that. People realize that Texas has these very big cities, but seriously like I think that the kind of more urbanist minded type of part of America of which there are many in Phoenix and places like that I should also note, but maybe we should ask ourselves, “Who in this country really does do affordable market-rate housing and what does that look like?” Okay, we don’t want sprawl, but how do we do that without sprawl? Scottsdale is not like that.

There’s some beautiful condo developments there that are expensive, but they’re not as expensive as here. Have you seen that one in Scottsdale that’s won those design awards with the hanging gardens? It’s gorgeous. Anyway, I’m just saying that I do think that when we ask ourselves, “Where is real America? Where is America headed?” The answer is Atlanta, Houston, Phoenix, Dallas, like it or not, are the places that people are going to. Those are the places that are growing. Like it or not, those are the places that are gaining electoral votes while we’re losing them. And I think we have to ask ourselves, why are people moving there? I don’t think it has anything to do with lower tax rates. I think it has to do with lower housing prices.

JW: I would agree with that. I mean, I go back and visit friends in Austin all the time, and Austin’s getting crazy to me, you know, locally, but it’s still way cheaper than here. Even if you wanted to live in the suburbs and live that lifestyle, you can and you can own a 3,000-square-foot house for $250,000. The math is very stark as opposed to this place that I’m in now, which is 900 square feet. And probably if you were to purchase this unit as a condo, it’d probably be like $1.2 / $1.3 million. Right? So there’s a huge difference in the math that works out for people. So I think that’s part of it, right? Thats part of the difference.

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