Tuesday, July 14, 2020 -
Print Edition

Is it racist to oppose housing density?

The density = racism argument, besides its fallacies, exacerbates the problem

The claim is made that it is racist to oppose housing density — multiplexes and high rise apartments. The argument, as set forth by advocates of density and opponents of single-family homes, runs like this:

Residents of single-family homes who oppose the zoning of multi-story housing complexes for their neighborhood in effect push the constructions of these units to poorer neighborhoods. Then, when those dense housing structures go up in the poorer neighborhoods, the locals who have lived and treasured their neighborhood for years or decades are forced out. Besides losing their familiar neighborhood and friends, they cannot afford to live elsewhere. This increases poverty and homelessness. Because these poorer neighborhoods are usually minority neighborhoods, opposition to density by owners of single-family homes within their neighborhoods fosters racial discrimination. Intentionally or not, opposition to density is racist.

The fallacies in this argument abound. Far more important, the matter is not just one of dry logic. The argument against density, while claiming to cure racism, actually severely retricts the housing choices of minorities. It is undeniable that the majority of owners of single-family homes in neighborhoods comprised of single-family homes are white, although there are exceptions such as North Park Hill, Montbello, Green Valley Ranch and Valverde. Under the favored policies of the advocates of housing density, the exceptions would stay that way. There is no hope or policy, in theory or in practice, that is offered by the advocates of density that would enable minorities to own single-family homes on roughly the same percentage as white owners.

Needless to say, not everyone prefers a single-family home. For those who prefer to live in a multifamily complex or a high rise, let them do so, for rent or for purchase. Although we have no data, we find it hard to believe that a preference for a non-single-family housing arrangement breaks down along racial lines. More minorities would prefer single-family homes if they could access them. But they never will if the density advocates have their way, for the simple reason that fewer and fewer single-family homes will be available as more and more available land is taken for density construction.

That’s the first fallacy in the density argument. It’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It says: Consider the needs of the poorer neighborhoods, yet, at the same time, it would pack these very neighborhoods with dense housing. Whether the new high rises in these neighborhoods are upscale or not is not relevant to the question of the land available for single-family homes.

What is relevant is that the majority of housing being built in Denver is upscale, not solving the affordable housing crisis but exacerbating it.

Worse, some of these developments have come at the expense of single-family homeownership by people of color. See Five Points, for example.

The second fallacy is this: Opposition to density in predominantly single-family and white neighborhoods is not equivalent to advocacy of density elsewhere. The predominantly architectural ugliness and disproportion of most of the high rises popping up all over Denver are intrinsically cringeworthy. Most people who live in one neighborhood work in another one. Density anywhere is opposed. That which primarily drives density in Denver is not opposition to it from single-family neighborhoods, but four other factors:

1. the thirst for development by developers.

2. the fallacy of the inevitability of a “housing crisis.”

3. the pro-density, virtually unrestricted, laissez fair zoning policies already in place.

4. a fallacy in the definition of “affordable housing.”

The thirst for development by developers speaks for itself. The solution is much stricter zoning policies. The construction of upscale, dense and communally destructive housing in poorer neighborhoods is not an act of G-d. It is a direct result of zoning policies in place. Let them be changed! Oh, but it will be argued, there is a housing crisis. Density is inevitable. There is nothing one can do.

Actually, it is in large part just the opposite. Dense construction stokes an artificial housing crisis by attracting people to the Denver area in the first place, people who otherwise would not relocate here. Density, to its advocates, it not just a housing policy; it is a high ideal. It approaches a religious dogma, a catechism.

Well, then, if density should be and often is opposed in and out of single-family neighborhoods, just where are the homeless or the poorer strata supposed to live? It is argued that there is no choice but dense, “affordable housing.” That is the answer offered.

However, “affordable housing” is often anything but affordable. That is because it is defined in relative terms. It’s a complicated formula, but the upshot is widely acknowledged. So-called affordable housing is often priced way beyond the means of the people who are supposed to be helped by it. For example, in a neighborhood of $1 million homes, “affordable housing” can be defined as a home costing $600,000 or more. Developers are allowed, under the very flexible definition of “affordable housing,” to slake their thirst for development. The density of affordable housing is often another blow against poorer neighborhoods, where “affordable housing” is proportionately beyond the means of the people living there, or wanting to live there.

Well then, if the pro-density argument is riddled with fallacies and unwise policies, what is the preferred housing solution? A combination of policies:

1. Much tougher zoning restrictions on dense, upscale housing in all neighborhoods. Stop turning Denver into a magnet. There is no inevitable “housing crisis.”

2. Objective, truly affordable housing in any neighborhood. If proposed housing is truly affordable, all neighorhoods should share in it.

3. Preservation of and de-stigmatization of single-family homes, with this corollary: the preservation of neighborhoods comprised primarily of single-family homes and the creation of new ones.

4. Retention of the housing mortgage tax deduction.

5. Banning of high-rise construction without realistic provision of adequate parking. Advocates of density often regard opposition to it as racist when, in fact, it is simply common sense: don’t make a bad plan.

Hard to quantify, there is another critical fallacy in the advocacy of density. That’s the idea that unaffordable housing causes homelessness, and the necessary corollary that affordable housing is the cure for homelessness.

This is simplistic and sloppy thinking, characteristic of some density advocates. Yes, of course, some homeless people became that way because they couldn’t or can’t afford a home of any kind. However, also critical in homelessness are issues of mental health, drug use, anomie, negative role modeling, personal preference, municipal tolerance and other factors. There is no single solution to homelessness. While it is critical to construct truly affordable housing for homeless people, it is a fallacy to think that this can solve homelessness. It is a dangerous fallacy. For when it doesn’t work, as it surely will not, density advocates will simply say: More density! If only we had still more density, then homelessness would end. It’s a non-falsifiable argument that can ruin a city.

Rather than railing against those who would preserve the single-family home, let the advocates of density examine their own assumptions and fallacies. Their characterization of the housing issue as a manichean divide with the forces of light on the one side and the forces of selfishness or racism on the other is at loggerheads with reality.

Copyright © 2020 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Leave a Reply