Plato had it that the state is an individual writ large.

For, Confucius, a proxy for a harmonious, orderly, natural form of government, was the family.

Should I ever need reminding of why policy, politics, and government, at the national, state, and local level are so polarized, so emotionally freighted and fraught, so mercurial and combustive, so prone to ego and vulnerable to chaos, confusion, and cross-purpose, I only need to recall a dozen or more Thanksgiving dinner tables as one of seven kids growing up with my own, large, extended, hilariously argumentative, occasionally eruptive, not rarely hurtful, loving family.

Local and regional policy as regards one of our society's scourges--the lack of access of millions of working American households to decent, safe, healthy, and happy housing options--is a mess right now.

NIMBY, YIMBY, Mumbo, Jumbo, and Dumbo. They don't know what they don't know. But they know what will get them votes to win positions in local governments to fight for what it is they don't know.

Demographer Dowell Myers, professor in the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California, is like urban planning's version of Will Rogers, particularly masterful at mining crushing amounts of data and banal household realities for brilliant gems of social wisdom. Not to mention their policy implications. He loses sleep over things like the fact that Los Angeles and many California urban areas are getting old, losing young people, becoming kidless. For Dowell, the problem is not hard to understand, as complex as it may seem.

"Property holders own the land, they have the vote, and they are older, more well-to-do, and they don't want change where they live."

Age demographics may be an overly simplistic way to look at this. However, there's profound, meaningful kernel here to explore. Here's why.

As you know, last week Oregon became the first state to memorialize rent control as a policy.

Whether you're a multifamily developer or a single-family for-sale home builder, the measure is meaningful both in its mechanics and its scope. It's scary because it highlights radical new direction and motives of local, county, regional, and state officials--elected and otherwise--that can and will materially and meaningfully affect market rate players in residential investment, development, construction, and property management.

This analysis by Brookings Institute Metropolitan Policy Program Fellow Jenny Schuetz boils the matter down to its simplest pieces and parts.

  • Rent control supporters design these measures to fix the problem of unaffordable housing.
  • They win votes, get elected, and pass legislation based on a theory that price controls on current supply will stanch the widening gap between incomes and housing costs.
  • They disregard unintended consequences of their design--which create worse conditions than existed before they put them into effect.

Rent control--by focusing on a symptom rather than a cause--can make things worse, Schuetz writes. To get at the cause, one needs to look at two kinds of affordability challenges. She writes:

The first affordability problem is that the nation’s poorest 20 percent have too little income to afford minimum quality housing without receiving subsidies. That’s not a failure of housing markets, but a function of the low wages and unstable incomes generated by labor markets. Poor families could be helped by expanding existing programs such as housing vouchers or the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to cover more poor households. But to fund those programs, middle- and higher-income households would have to pay more in taxes—which state and federal lawmakers have been reluctant to propose.

The second, more challenging affordability problem is that over the past 40 years, the U.S. hasn’t built enough housing in the locations where people most want to live. Metropolitan areas with strong labor markets and high levels of amenities—including Portland, Ore., Seattle, Wash., most of coastal California, and the Northeast corridor from Washington, D.C. to Boston, Mass.—have underbuilt housing relative to demand. The same pattern is true for neighborhoods within cities. Affluent residential areas with good public schools, access to jobs and transportation, have effectively shut down new development of anything other than expensive single family homes on large lots.

Schuetz's prescription for policy-makers, these elected and appointed officials who covet their positions as able representatives of their constituents, is deadpan ironic.

Politicians need to be honest with their constituents about the cost of better policies as well as the costs of failing to act. Affluent households should pay more taxes to support poor families, and should allow new apartments in their own backyards.

One of the key issues that ties the interests of single-family builders to multifamily developers on this matter is this question of "what is it we can do?"

Is this matter of local, regional, and state policy, regulation, over-reach, whatever you want to call it, an "external," something you can't control and shouldn't waste time on addressing?


Look at the wonderful kernel of meaning in Dowell Myers' statement above.

Many of these officials and a large part of their electorates are Baby Boom generation adults. They're going to oppose change, and they're going to spend money to oppose it, in large part because they're uncomfortable with change.

They'll do that, possibly, putting their own communities at risk. Why? We'll maybe because our 300,000 year-old brains tend to start behaving that way when we reach an age well beyond historical norms.

At any rate, the idea that age demographics--and its impact on both votes, elected official representation, and policy--could play an important role in one of the biggest issues of our time in housing ... the 25% to 35% layer of cost regulation, policy, local fees, etc. place on market-rate homes and apartments suggests to me that this could be an opportunity area for marketing.

Have a look at this take on the issue from Andrew Davis, a friend whose filters, switches, and levers, sometimes unleash amazing impacts, especially where none were perceived.

Local policy efficacy--among both multifamily developers and single-family builders--is at least in part a marketing challenge.

And the good news for both business communities is that there's already a strong track record of effectiveness in marketing to the essential building block of government, Baby Boom families.