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The Politics of Scarcity vs Abundance
The housing theory of everything and Massachusetts's response to migrants
I have a professional interest in the politics of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the entity that does, after all, employ me. Indeed, the title of this blogletter is taken from one of the classic descriptions of Massachusetts politics from The Education of Henry Adams:
Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, had always been the systematic organization of hatreds, and Massachusetts politics had been as harsh as the climate. The chief charm of New England was harshness of contrasts and extremes of sensibility,—a cold that froze the blood, and a heat that boiled it,—so that the pleasure of hating—oneself if no better victim offered,—was not its rarest amusement …
As such, one of the newsletters with which I begin my day is the Politico Massachusetts Playbook, which covers the news about Beacon Hill and the many towns of the Commonwealth rather thoroughly. I don’t expect any of you to be familiar with the details of the Commonwealth, but I will offer a defense of Politico products, sometimes scorned by the earnest as being too cynical and even fawning: they are written for people who know what team they’re on and don’t need hand-holding, like a giant sign saying “THIS IS GOOD” or “THIS IS BAD” after every news item. Not everyone needs to or wants to know what the strategies of the other teams are, but if you do want to know what’s going on Politico will synthesize that for you.
And so it is that Politico’s approach continues to bring me near-daily updates about the migrant crisis and Massachusetts. The crisis results in part from the efforts of red-state governors, particularly Ron DeSantis of Florida, to send migrants Northward so that blue states (those whose only border, if they have one, is with Canada) would feel border states’ pain—or, at least, so that DeSantis and others could get on Fox telling their constituents that they were making blue states feel pain.
I find the approach that DeSantis and others have taken to be sickening, not least because it involved, at a minimum, tricking human beings and turning them into political stunts. I’m fine with political hardball (see the title of this blogletter) but using people as stunts is a bit much.
And yet the tactics have been effective, if not in the way DeSantis wanted. As migrants pour into Logan Airport each night, Massachusetts, at least, is feeling a great deal of pressure and some pain. The state’s governor declared a state of emergency recently as state resources reached capability to deal with the influx of migrants. Recent polls indicate that Massachusetts voters now find immigration to be one of the top issues facing the state, after the traditional trinity of the economy, cost of living, and housing. The “shelter crisis”—the scramble of the state and local governments to find housing for the now more than 6,000 families in shelters, including many migrants—dominates local news. Relations between the state legislature and the governor (both Democrats) have deteriorated.
And today’s Massachusetts Playbook highlights, if inadvertently, that housing scarcity is at the root of many of these issues.
The issue arises in many contexts, whether it be local boosters fretting that Lowell will lose a downtown hotel to migrant housing or state legislators threatening that pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into migrant shelter will eventually necessitate cutting other services or the mayor of Taunton fining another hotel for being over capacity for housing migrants.
There’s always context for everything. One piece of context here is that Massachusetts (albeit mostly at the local level) has radically limited the building of new housing for far too long. Since the 2009 recession ended, new building permits have been running 400 units per month below the average before that period—a substantial deficit of housing that has sent housing prices soaring and vacancies (rental and ownership) plummeting.
Massachusetts is often castigated in national politics as an example of liberalism runamuck. This is not fair. Massachusetts is somewhat progressive on some issues but it is much more a vehicle for Commonwealth—for the protection of particular asset classes, namely homeownership, against material and nonmaterial threats. The tenor of Massachusetts politics is distinctly zero-sum: permits for bars are capped, land-use deliberations take on a tenor of incredible scarcity, and building multifamily housing is less an uphill battle than a trek up an endless Heartbreak Hill.
The scarcity influences everything in Massachusetts. The class antagonisms are based on asset ownership rather than income. There is nothing quite like the feeling of being told, implicitly and often explicitly, that being a renter means you don’t belong—and if you don’t know what that feels like, rent in Massachusetts for a week or two.
As a result, and despite some recent welcome policy advances, housing is not built at a level commensurate with Massachusetts’s professed values. “Refugees are welcome here” signs dot the liberal enclaves of Northampton and elsewhere in Massachusetts, but the rent levels say otherwise. In a state whose exports largely involve higher education and its spinoffs, not a few undergrads work too long at too many jobs to cover the rent—rents which rise much faster than tuition—and finding ways for graduate students and faculty to live is an increasingly unsolvable challenge. Housing scarcity hurts the present by hurting the future.
The housing theory of everything suggests that what seem to be disparate challenges—lack of study time for undergraduates, failure to welcome refugees in a rich state, an inability to diversify lily-white towns—really stem from one cause: a lack of housing. The housing crisis is the shelter crisis. If housing were plentiful, then caring for migrants would be easy—and the tradeoffs of such policies would be much reduced. In a Commonwealth aimed at not just representing abundance but producing abundance, there would be no shelter crisis.
As I’ve written elsewhere, housing policy in the United States is not an adjunct to international relations or even foreign policy. (After all, as I tell my classes, immigration, migration, and refugee policy is foreign policy, and so what’s happening in Massachusetts is a consequence of the international flow of people and U.S. policy regarding how people are allowed to come here.) U.S. housing stocks are one of the largest asset classes in the world—large enough to cause, say, the 2008 recession—and U.S. housing policy is the closest thing we have to a lever for effective climate policy. In an era in which red and blue states will diverge on civil rights, housing policy is also civil rights policy—and restricting housing starts means limiting the options for those who’d otherwise like to leave states where they’re not welcome.
And yet: all politics is local, to quote another Massachusetts political axiom. When people block any development that would change their cities or towns, the spillover effects are huge. The inability to create abundant housing means that even the metaphorical shining city on a hill risks succumbing to de facto nativist pressures. They say policy embodies values. It’s time to choose.
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