Tom MacWright


This recently post is a few days late. It’ll also be unusually focused: this one’s just about things I’ve read, and very much about politics, socialism, housing, and transportation. This blog does not represent the views of my employer, etc.

I’ve been reading a lot about transportation, housing, and socialism lately. I moved to San Francisco almost a year ago, and although most cities in the United States are facing housing shortages, transportation inefficiency, and hard questions about equality and displacement, SF ranks near the top in terms of severity and the intensity of disagreemnt.

Personally - I don’t plan to own a home anytime soon. I bike to work every day, was a member of WABA in DC and am now a member of SF Bike Coalition. I’m newly a member of the local DSA chapter, but like most folks I know, pragmatic about voting - I voted for Hillary in the general. Becoming a bit more involved with the DSA sparked a lot of this reading - it’s the closest to a real party affiliation that I’ve had, and their issue-by-issue strategy, embodied in the structure of working groups, means that there are plenty of causes for which their viewpoint precisely matches my own and I’m happy to wholeheartedly support them.

That said, the overlap between my thinking on housing and DSA’s is not quite complete. The Los Angeles chapter has been the most active in producing statements relative to California policy. They oppose Costa Hawkins, ‘a state law that prevents local municipalities from enacting strict rent control statutes’ - as do I. They also oppose Prop 13, though they haven’t issued a formal statement about it. Prop 13 is almost certainly one of the ingredients to California’s housing disaster, amounting to a subsidy of around $12.5 billion to homeowners.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much on the table for either of those initiatives - a bill to repeal Costa-Hawkins failed in January, and there’s been no serious challenge to Prop 13 in recent years.


DSA LA also opposed SB287, the much-hyped bill that would upzone areas near transit. SB287 died in committee but is likely to return, according to Scott Weiner, its author and main proponent. The DSA’s opposition note lets on to one of their main stances: opposition to ‘YIMBY’, or ‘Yes In My Backyard’ flavored politics - associating them with trickle-down economics and demanding instead PHIMBY, ‘Public Housing In My Backyard’.

This is where I think things get a little wobbly. The opposition note to SB287 is far from a categorical dismissal - instead it ends in a list of amendments that (at least for the ones actually related to the bill that would be appropropriate to include) are pretty reasonable. And the amended bill is certainly a lot closer to what the DSA desires.

Public housing

After reading these pieces, I really wanted to dig into what the PHIMBY approach might actually amount to: there are plenty of allusions to a plan, but not much concrete thought. There is one well-crafted and very interesting piece, though: the People’s Policy Project paper ‘A Plan to Solve the Housing Crisis Through Social Housing’. It was an enjoyable read - well-edited and pretty well-researched for the most part. The audacious target is ‘ten million municipal homes in ten years’. It discusses the labor required to build, where the money might come from, and spends plenty of words on international success stories.

That said, the PPP paper spends almost no time discussing transit: they note that projects in Stockholm failed because public transit links weren’t integrated, but in the entire rest of the paper the only mention of transport policy is mentioning that developments should have ‘adequate transport’. I found this worrying, especially in combination with the plan for where to build such housing: they refer to a 2000 study by The Brookings Institute and say that it ‘found huge quantities of land’ - without noting one of the key insights of the linked paper, that most of that land is split into parcels too small to build anything on, brownfield or polluted, and in undesirable sites.

The claim that there’s plenty of free land is how the PPP paper promises to build without displacement, and given its citation - that seems unlikely. And furthermore, the geographical problem posed by connecting long-vacant plots to existing transit networks, instead of building based on existing transit connections - seems to weaken their already breezy approach to transit.

That said, as far as I can tell, this is the first paper to dig deep and propose this public housing strategy, and I sincerely hope that it’s followed by many others. I found the PPP paper encouraging and fascinating, and think that the economics analysis will be useful to frame discussions regardless of whether some of the specifics are correct.

The local situation

In short, it’s antagonistic and weird, and a lot different from anything I’ve seen before. For example, ‘YIMBYs: The Darlings of the Real Estate Industry’, a sort of hit piece on the various people involved in local housing, was initially titled “YIMBYs: The ‘Alt-Right’ Darlings of the Real Estate Industry”, but was retitled ‘to be more accurate and representative of the story’s contents’. The piece now refers to its targets as neoliberals, indirectly accuses their policies of killing a 100-year-old woman, and refers to people who decided to be activists full-time as ‘former techies’. It’s a very bad piece: I don’t recommend it. There’s a lot of antagonism happening.

I’ve been really enjoying Victoria Fierce’s writing - she’s one of the few people firmly in both camps, and she’s clearly thinking of the bigger picture. I think that approach works, and I want to approximate something similar to it.

The long-term socialist agenda of decommodified public housing seems good. And renter protections and intersectional cultural context should be central to any discussion of housing. Might we synthesize the two into policies that protect existing residents at the same time as well as recognizing that, despite how much folks don’t like ‘techies’, willing them away is not working and assuming that they account for all population change is absurd. The urbanization of the world is a much larger trend than any startup. Most organizations, including DSA, have a more sophisticated - and accurate - critique, but what gets shared and shouted tends to be a little different.

What’s next

Transportation and housing are easy issues to become consumed by, because everyone experiences them to some degree. They also happen to be extremely divisive. There are plenty of other issues that I’m really excited to engage with more deeply, though - the DSA’s approach to use of force by police, better tenant protections, and a new gross receipts tax seem like good straightforward policy.

July 07, 2018 @tmcw