AMAC Exclusive by David P. Deavel
This week, we celebrate Independence Day, and as we do, in many ways Americans need to fight for our independence again. Aided by business forces, many big cities across the country are tilting the playing field against single-family housing and home ownership in general. In so doing, they are pursuing a plan the Obama Administration started and the Biden Administration wants to complete. While some commentators, including both the “Great Reset” advocates and some economists, are cheering on America turning into a nation of renters, it’s important to remember why our Founders favored a nation of widely-distributed property ownership and why it matters to us today.
First, the cities. While many blue state cities have already gone in this direction, the city of Atlanta, under failed (and not running for re-election) Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, is one of the latest blue cities pushing full-speed ahead with policies designed to erode the suburbs and single-family home zoning. It’s all done in the holy names of “density” (good supposedly because it is environmentally better) and “equity” (because some neighborhoods with single-family zoning were in the past geared to keep black people out). But as with many such moves, this one will end in outcomes that are equally bad on all levels.
Former Georgia Republican state representative Bob Irvin sifted through the Atlanta Department of City Planning’s report in a recent column and summarized what city officials are planning to do: ban single-family zoning; reduce minimum lot sizes, and shorten the distances one is allowed to build from the street or the neighbors’ house; allow owners of houses to subdivide their own lots and put in Accessory Dwelling Units (the requirements of which will be loosened in order to have cheaper living spaces); end the minimums for parking spaces on commercial properties and for apartment and condo units. Irvin notes that all of this means the plan should be called “The Developer Feeding Frenzy Ordinance” since “[i]t will be rapacious developers, buying up a few lots, overbuilding them, changing that neighborhood forever, devaluing homeowners’ investments, and then moving on to the next neighborhood.”
Think that’s not true? “A lot of things that would have been for-sale housing are going to be for-rent housing,” according to Josh Zegen of Madison Realty Capital in an April Wall Street Journal report on the more than 200 investment firms now buying up homes across the country. These firms, most famously Black Rock, are buying up entire neighborhoods, and paying top dollar to sellers—but leaving those sellers then unable to secure a new house as prices rise and houses often sell before they even officially hit the market. The corporate institutional investors may well be creating a housing price bubble that will not end well for those who do manage to get a home.
This isn’t just the goal of cities and private equity firms, however. The Biden Administration is touting as part of its “infrastructure” bill incentives for localities that get rid of all those “exclusionary zoning laws—like minimum lot sizes, mandatory parking requirements, and prohibitions on multifamily housing.” While they claim that such measures have “inflated housing and construction costs and locked families out of areas with more opportunities,” they mention nothing about families actually owning properties.
Moreover, I wouldn’t believe the left’s supposed concern about costs of housing. In the very same proposals are all sorts of incentives for “retrofitting” houses with the latest environmental measures and use of union labor. While these might both be good in some ways, lessening costs is not going to be a part of the equation. As Joel Kotkin has observed, the very cities that have done all this retrofitting and density-increasing have had just as many problems with affordable housing as anybody else. That is because the incentive system in the infrastructure bill is only a bigger application of the one in President Obama’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, reversed by President Trump. It’s just that the Biden-era one will target the suburbs more directly. A better solution would be loosening restrictions on building single-family homes, which, as even the Atlantic has observed, is where most black people want to live, as their demonstrated preferences show. “Today,” the magazine notes, citing a center-left Brookings Institution researcher, “the majority—52 percent— of African Americans in the nation’s top 100 metro areas live in the suburbs of those regions”—a fairly dramatic shift from the beginning of the millennium.
Minorities, like everybody else, still think that the American dream of one’s own home is desirable. Globalist thinkers such as Klaus Schwab, who predicts that by 2030 most people will “own nothing and be happy,” and economists such as Karl Smith, who thinks of houses merely as “investments” that are less liquid than other investments and keep people from moving around as much as they might otherwise, argue that we need to change all that. They tend to think only in terms of economic utility and take a rather naïve view of what widespread homeownership means to people and the country.
So as we celebrate Independence Day, it’s important to remember the deeper meaning of property. It is not just an “investment.” As political scientist Thomas West has written, one of the main policy aims of the founders was that “Government must encourage widespread ownership.” The reasons for their preference were several.
First, property owners are more likely to use their property to build wealth and benefit their communities and the nation. This has been affirmed by no less than Obama-era economic adviser Jason Furman, who “calculated that a single-family home contributes 2.5 times as much to the national GDP than an apartment unit.”
Second, property owners have a stake in liberty not simply to do what they want, but to build a society. Homeowners are generally more invested in their own neighborhoods, communities, and indeed their countries. James Ely cites the words of a historian of the Founding era: “Men were equal in that no one of them should be dependent on the will of another, and property made this independence possible. Americans in 1776 therefore concluded that they were naturally fit for republicanism precisely because they were ‘a people of property; almost every man is a freeholder.’”
Many people know that Jefferson’s use of the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” was adapted from John Locke’s “life, liberty, and property.” Our modern advocates for the non-ownership society have been giving us a cheaper vision of happiness—liquidity! mobility! density!—in place of the one in which a family’s house is its castle.
To regenerate our understanding of independence this year, we should go back and reflect on the connection of property and happiness—preferably surrounded by friends and family in our own backyards, if we are lucky enough to have them.
David P. Deavel is editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, co-director of the Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy, and a visiting professor at the University of St. Thomas (MN). He is the co-host of the Deep Down Things podcast.
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