Somehow It’s a Controversial Question.
Is economic collapse good? No. No, it isn’t. Stuart Schuffman is only the latest to float the benefits of recessions — lower rents, “those people” leaving town, “taking back their city.” But when he opines on the silver lining of pandemic-induced economic collapse, instead of acknowledging our decades-long public policy failures, we know that we’ve gone through the looking glass.
Recessions are when people lose their jobs. Recessions harm working-class families. If you see an upside in economic catastrophe, check your privilege. This kind of thinking will set us up to repeat all the mistakes of the past decade. With a chronic housing shortage, we’ve created a nightmare where the boom times are bad, and the recessions are worse.
The same argument pops up over and over in cities and towns everywhere: Why can’t the jobs go elsewhere? Why do we have to “accommodate” growth?
Deliberately stifling jobs causes harm. This isn’t “let’s regulate to protect workers,” “let’s increase the minimum wage,” “let’s give people healthcare,” — all admirable goals. No, this is misanthropy: “get those workers away from me.”
We had jobs. Lots of jobs. Corporate jobs and nonprofit jobs, nightlife jobs and theater jobs, restaurant jobs and tourism jobs, jobs from businesses large and small. We had a vibrant, exciting city. People moved here wanting to share in that richness.
Recessions suck vibrancy away — bar by bar, restaurant by restaurant, nonprofit by nonprofit. It may sound obvious, but taking a sledgehammer to the economy does not help working people.
But instead of building homes for immigrants, young families, folks with degrees and without, some people decided this was a “culture war” and that newcomers were the problem. Shortages bring out the worst in people, and a housing shortage is no exception. People blamed one another as they fought over scraps. They blamed the renter for paying $3000 for a one-bedroom and not the system that was ripping everyone off. They imagined themselves the colossus athwart municipal history, hand outstretched to new arrivals at our city’s golden gates signaling, “Stop! Thou shalt not pass.”
Who is harmed by a downturn? Tech workers? Corporate lawyers? Longtime homeowners? No, and progressives should know better. Artists, waiters, bartenders — these are the folks who are left unemployed, displaced from our vibrant city. Recessions suck vibrancy away — bar by bar, restaurant by restaurant, nonprofit by nonprofit. It may sound obvious, but taking a sledgehammer to the economy does not help working people.
For decades we failed to allow more homes, causing a shortage, driving up rents. Will we seize this moment and change our ways? Will we change our laws to allow missing middle housing to be built when demand — when people — return to our prosperous shores?
Cities have the opportunity to adopt a pro-human, pro-growth, pro-tenant policies that do the work to lift all boats. Building more housing addresses the demand, lets prices fall and gives us more tax money to spend on subsidized affordable housing, transit, and the social safety net. We can use strong tenant protections and direct subsidies to stabilize communities through booms and busts. Prosperity and taxes allow us to invest in equity. This future is possible.
Or we can repeat our mistakes: reject prosperity and pray for catastrophe. When good times come again, our Supervisors can again wage a mean-spirited, ineffectual culture war. Politicians can ban cafeterias and go to war with scooter companies. But these culture wars accomplish nothing. This sound and fury has exhausted policy and entered performance art.
This is the choice. Do we build back better? Do we make building missing middle housing easy and fast? Do we use economic growth to fuel a welfare state that actually uplifts people? Or do we fail again?
I hope instead we decide to thrive. Together.