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To the Left, Everything You Own in the Box to the Left: America’s Unaffordable Liberal Cities

Image depicts streets of single family
Image depicts streets of single family suburban homes in Manassas, Virginia. Image via Getty Images/Glowimages RF

In America’s most unaffordable city, you need to earn $123 per hour to afford a median-priced single-family home. If you’re not looking to buy, you’ll need to earn at least $54 per hour to afford the average rent on a two-bedroom apartment for you and your family. This city—where only one in five families can afford to buy a home—is San Jose, California. 

San Jose is hardly an isolated case of inflated real estate costs. In 2022, Honolulu, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego all rank with San Jose as the most unaffordable cities in America. Across the United States, more and more urban areas suffer from unaffordability. While these cities all have many common traits, such as coastal locations and lucrative economies, there is one that stands out: They are all governed by the Democratic Party. Although the Democratic Party is often the public voice for low-income communities, these problems of unaffordability are oftentimes most glaring in Democratic-leaning spaces. Here, there is an uncomfortable problem lurking beneath the surface of the most dominant face of liberalism in America.

While one may question the correlation between politics and affordability, there is established research that draws strong connections between political affiliation and living costs. Trulia, a real estate marketplace, researched the voting records of the country’s largest cities in the 2012 elections. They found that the metros where Obama had won by the highest margins also had the worst problems with unaffordability. As Trulia’s Chief Economist Jed Kolko put it, “liberal markets tend to have higher income inequality and worse affordability.” As of 2021, 27 American metros are now classified as “severely unaffordable markets”—most of which lean Democratic. 

This severe unaffordability is crippling to those most at risk—namely low-income people of color. Most metros in the United States suffer from varying degrees of racial segregation, and the problems of unaffordability only serve to exacerbate issues felt by communities of color. Low-income residents are becoming priced out of high-opportunity neighborhoods, homelessness rates are increasing, and housing insecurity is rising. So why do these problems of unaffordability—which ultimately lead to issues of marginalization—occur so heavily in Democratic-leaning spaces? 

There is the argument that there’s simply a higher demand for housing in liberal urban spaces. Factors like high-paying industries, more services, and better access to education come to mind. However, that flattens a more nuanced perspective on the issue. For example, in 2008, economist Albert Saiz found that heavily crowded Democratic-leaning cities are often built along constraining geographical boundaries such as mountains, peninsulas, and bodies of water. By contrast, many Republican-leaning cities are built in areas of flat land like Texas. But the seeming inevitability of high prices is belied by the fact that Democratic municipal leaders have the tools at their disposal to tackle unaffordability. 

One vital issue is housing regulation restricting the creation of new homes. As Saiz himself stated, “Democratic, high-taxation metropolitan areas tend to constrain new development more.” Saiz discovered a link between liberal communities with higher home prices and more restrained development policies. In 2010, economist Matthew Kahn found that liberal cities in California tended to issue fewer housing permits the more liberal they became—despite the state needing millions of new housing units to keep pace with its growing population. 

While these policies in many places were originally structured to provide environmental and cultural protections, they now constrict affordable development. Economic environmental impact statements can often run as long as 1000 pages. Building projects in San Francisco typically take four or more years to complete. Metros like Greater Boston and the Bay Area drastically lag behind places like Greater Houston and Atlanta in terms of housing unit creation and productive zoning policy.

Perhaps two of the most debated policies within Democratic circles are the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Both acts ensure that development projects abide by environmental and community guidelines and give citizens the power to fight and approve local projects. However, instead of being used by the marginalized groups that these acts were put in place to protect, both acts are often co-opted by white, upper-class neighborhoods to stop affordable housing projects under a progressive banner of environmental and heritage protection.

These passionate ground-level activist groups are often referred to as NIMBYs (Not in My Back Yard). Active in many cities across the country, they have created an energetic and powerful low-density movement that has blocked and delayed many high-density developments and public works projects in their communities. Such movements have helped introduce moratoriums on housing development, create legislation to escape affordable housing guidelines, and elect local politicians that support their initiatives. In 2017, the City of Cupertino notably added 12,000 new jobs from the new Apple Park while only allowing for 27 new housing permits. Between 2010 and 2016, Marin County—one of the wealthiest and most Democratic-leaning counties in the nation—only added one home for every 20 new jobs. Despite NIMBYs only representing one faction of the wider Democratic Party, current legislation and policies afford them disproportionate influence over housing policy.

It’s important to recognize that NEPA, CEQA, and other environmental policies have led to positive environmental outcomes and protections. But such policies should be exploited to create exhausting, byzantine processes for much-needed housing development. Similarly, municipal governments need to deregulate and expedite housing creation and relax zoning policies so that new housing can arrive in a timely and widespread manner. In 2019, the Minneapolis city council voted to end single-family zoning. The city’s politicians, representing a younger, more progressive faction of the Democratic Party, succeeded by seeking out the voices of marginalized communities. Rather than the traditional zoning meetings dominated by NIMBYs and wealthier white residents, the city polled residents on zoning policy from street fairs, churches, and festivals using accessible language and questions. Changes were instituted slowly citywide, lest anyone complain about fast, unfair changes that are difficult to adjust to. The city’s officials acted in a decisive, inclusive, and frank manner, emphasizing racial justice. Now, 70 percent of residential land in Minneapolis allows single-family zoning and open to high-density housing, for which the local government is allocating $40 million. There is much to learn from Minneapoliss  example. 

The Democratic Party—from the grassroots to the  legislative levels—needs to dismantle their outdated policies that exacerbate wealth inequality, racial marginalization, and unaffordability. Minneapolis shows the power of a new wave of young, local-level progressives within the party—a group that must be offered its own voice outside of the whiter, more antiquated liberal establishment. Only then will the party begin to embody the progressive principles that its platforms espouse. Almost all Democrats would agree that in no city in America should you need to earn over $123 an hour to afford a basic home for your family. It is time to ensure that now.