Bothsidesism Won't Solve Berkeley's Housing Problems

Becky O'Malley
Saturday April 14, 2018 - 10:33:00 AM

In many Berkeley households, including some I know well, you’d expect to find a little shrine with a picture of Paul Krugman and perhaps a few votive lights and a vase of flowers. No, he’s still very much alive, but that’s how much respect he gets among certain kinds of local progressives. And it’s generally well deserved, but not always.

Friday’s New York Times column is a good example of Professor Krugman at his best. It’s a bracing rant against press coverage that portrays the retiring Paul Ryan as a serious conservative intellectual—as if!

The Krugman-popularized coinage “bothsidesism” is deployed to good effect.

From a previous column, here’s his definition:”bothsidesism — the almost pathological determination to portray politicians and their programs as being equally good or equally bad, no matter how ludicrous that pretense becomes.”

It’s a more colloquial version of the formal usages “false dichotomy” and “false equivalency”— what he calls in Friday’s column “ideological affirmative action.”

Yes. On the mark as usual.

But it pains me to recall the several instances in the past couple of years when I’ve been annoyed with the good professor’s own bothsidesism on a topic which he doesn’t seem to know much about: local land use in the coastal West. 

[Parenthetical disclaimer: I am aware that Monty Python is now in charge of the federal government, the EPA is being dismantled, and we’re going to war with—Syria? Russia? North Korea? But what can we do about those problems today except help some not-so-bad Democrats get elected in the fall? Back to the small stuff…where will everyone who loves being in Northern California live?] 

From his April 2 column on economic polarization and the rise of Trump: 


“I’m not saying that everything is great in coastal cities: Many people remain economically stranded even within metropolitan areas that look successful in the aggregate. And soaring housing costs, thanks in large part to Nimbyism, are a real and growing problem. Still, regional economic divergence is real and correlates closely, though not perfectly, with political divergence. [emphasis added.]  


No. Soaring housing costs, especially in the area I know well, the Bay, are not caused by current residents saying Not In My Back Yard. (By the way, NIMBY,now used pejoratively, was coined by those brave housewives whose back yards abutted Love Canal’s toxic waste dump.) 

Do “studies show” anything about whether dreaded NIMBYs have caused Bay Area housing shortages? 

Here’s just one good one: A recent paper from Thomas Davidoff at the University of British Columbia analyses the details: Supply Constraints Are Not Valid Instrumental Variables for Home Prices Because They Are Correlated With Many Demand Factors 

Even the title is way too long-winded for this venue, but I’ll make it even worse by quoting the abstract: 

“Economists sometimes assume that strictly regulated housing markets near mountains and oceans are expensive because they are costly places to build, not because they are nice places with productive firms and workers. U.S. data show this convenient assumption to be false. Housing supply has grown more in supply-constrained markets than elsewhere over recent decades, indicating constraints are correlated with demand growth. Supply constraints are highly correlated with productivity proxies such as historical education levels, immigration, and national employment growth in locally prevalent industries. The correlation between constraints and productivity growth invalidates common uses of constraints as part of instrumental variables for home prices. The relationship between supply constraints and price volatility is much weaker after accounting for observable demand factors. [Emphasis added]”
In ordinary language, he’s just saying that the Cliff Notes version of supply-side economics doesn’t tell you much about housing. Even though the nicer places to live in the Bay have been increasing their housing supply, that hasn’t reduced demand for housing in such areas. Why would that be? 

I’m no economist, but my experience in law, journalism and high tech (not to mention high school debating) tells me that you can always select “studies” to “show” almost anything you want to prove rhetorically. This one paper might not be the last word on the housing situation, but Davidoff’s on to something. 

To figure out what’s not working here in the Bay Area, and what might fix it, “further research is necessary”. 

But the dimensions of the problem can be described by one of my favorite science words: multifactorial. 

Professor Davidoff’s paper says “Supply constraints are highly correlated with productivity proxies such as historical education levels, immigration, and national employment growth in locally prevalent industries.” 

Sounds kinda like Professor Krugman’s “regional economic divergence is real and correlates closely, though not perfectly, with political divergence”, doesn’t it? Think about it for a moment. 

It’s just sloppy to tag the Bay’s housing problems as NIMBY vs. YIMBY. That is, in fact, bothsidesism at its worst. It’s more complicated than that. 

A more measured and complex look at solving housing problems can be found in a recent piece in The Guardian by Matt Bruenig, head of a think-tank, the People’s Policy Project (3P). He says: 


“The debate about how to resolve our nation’s housing crisis is stuck in a frustrating rut. One side of the divide, calling themselves yimbys (Yes in my back yard), say we should allow private developers to build more housing units. On the other side of the divide are anti-gentrification campaigners who maintain that unleashed private developers will construct luxury housing that pushes up neighborhood rents and displaces local residents. What makes this debate so intractable is that both sides have a point.”  


His op-ed, Why we need social housing in the US”, is based on a recent paper by 3P which proposes “that municipal governments across the country build millions of units of social housing. An influx of publicly owned, efficiently built apartments would add to the housing supply while minimizing the displacement risks caused by luxury developments.” 


Examples are drawn from cities and countries in Europe and Asia where governments build and own housing which combines income levels so that revenues from the more prosperous residents partially subsidizes their lower-income neighbors. 

The paper’s only been out for about a week, but already a member of Berkeley’s Housing Advisory Committee has been working on applying the interesting theories in this paper to local needs. An early draft of his ideas can be found here. 

Several important factors in the discussion he’s started need special consideration in the Bay. 

1) Our problems are regional rather than municipal, and might need regional solutions. 

2) While we’ve been asleep at the switch speculators, many of them global, have been buying up all the available potential development site and are now just sitting on them. An experienced small-scale investor tells me that almost all of Oakland has been acquired by these interests already. Finding land will be hard. 

3) Municipalities are rapidly (and foolishly) selling off properties they already own to meet immediate cash needs. 

But instead of working directly on housing, developer-bankrolled state legislators like Scott Wiener and Nancy Skinner have been trying to change state law to automatically upzone sites near existing though dysfunctional mass transit. This will simply guarantee windfall profits for speculators who buy up such properties and displace current low income residents who are already transit users. This explains why neighborhood activists oppose this program, exemplified by SB 827. 

It would be much better for governmental agencies to acquire the few remaining development sites and run buses to serve them after new residents arrive. 

Here (and it’s really a topic for another day) we should note that the City of Richmond has finally settled its long-running dispute over the immensely valuable and environmentally unique Point Molate property it acquired from the federal government. As reported (and I haven’t finished reading the documents myself) the city has agreed to sell 30% of the property to a private housing developer and split the proceeds with one developer and his Native casino clients who were the plaintiffs in the longstanding litigation. What an opportunity for all-income social development, owned and spear-headed by the city of Richmond, this property would offer, but the terms of the settlement may make this impossible. 

This could be an example of housing development which is not NIMBY vs. YIMBY, which can’t be facilely dismissed by a simple-minded bothsidesism analysis. 

Take a look at these articles in the previous issue, and let us know how you think all-income social housing might work around here: 

Press Release: Richmond Successfully Resolves Point Molate Litigation Richmond City Manager's Office 04-12-2018 

Press Release: Point Molate Litigation Settles Received on behalf of Morrison & Foerster 04-12-2018 

New: All-Income Social Housing: the Solution to Berkeley's Affordable Housing Crisis Thomas Lord, City of Berkeley Housing Advisory Commissioner 04-10-2018 


And the next time the sainted Dr. Krugman thoughtlessly blames people he unfairly labels as NIMBYs for complex ills caused by the excesses of global capitalism, drop him a line, will you?