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Catering to Highly Educated Whites is Disastrous for Housing Policy
Another reason Democrats need the working class.
In June, Ruy Teixeira gave us, “Five Reasons Why Democrats Should Focus Obsessively on Working-Class Voters” in order to win elections. To add to that compelling case, here’s a sixth reason: the increasing reliance of the Democratic Party on highly educated, upper-middle class white voters comes at a big cost when sitting down to craft public policy. Nowhere is that more evident than on the issue of housing.
In my new book, Excluded: How Snob Zoning, NIMBYism and Class Bias Build the Walls We Don’t See, I outline the host of ways in which exclusionary land use policies—such as bans on multifamily housing and minimum lot sizes—harm the country as a whole, and working Americans in particular.
By limiting housing supply, exclusionary policies artificially increase housing prices, which makes the lives of working-class, low-income, and young people much harder.
By effectively foreclosing the ability of working people to live in certain communities with high performing public schools, such policies increase educational inequality.
By making entire regions with good jobs prohibitively expensive, restrictive zoning means workers can’t afford to move to places that have higher wages, which makes the country less productive, and thwarts the dreams of countless families.
When working families do manage to move to highly productive regions of the country, exclusionary laws push workers out the to the periphery of metropolitan areas, which means longer commutes. Those long drives add personal misery to people’s lives and are bad for the environment.
As a matter policy, then, removing exclusionary barriers ought to be a no-brainer for Democrats generally, and especially so for liberal patriots, who see the universal worth of all Americans and don’t want anyone to feel looked down upon or excluded.
The challenge, however, is that research finds some of the most egregious forms of exclusionary zoning are often found in politically liberal states and cities. In a recent article in The Atlantic, I examined the New York City suburb of Scarsdale, which comes close to banning any type of multifamily housing. According to data provided to me by New York University’s Furman Center, just 0.2 percent of Scarsdale’s lots contain structures classified as two-or three bedroom homes or apartments.
The walls that Scarsdale has erected help explain why its population has a median income nearly three times that of nearby Port Chester, and a population that is 87 percent white or Asian. By contrast, Port Chester, which has much less restrictive zoning, has a population that is 69 percent black and Hispanic. Port Chester is home to many landscapers, housekeepers, and child care providers. They may provide services to families in Scarsdale, but they are effectively prevented from living there.
Earlier this year, New York’s moderate Democratic governor Kathy Hochul tried to do something about these laws that exclude and drive up the price of homes. She proposed a Housing Compact to build 800,000 homes in the next 10 years, with localities required to boost the permitting of housing. If they failed to, a new state process would have been put in place to provide fast-track approval of new housing.
The proposal went down in flames, even though many consider the state legislature more liberal than Hochul. The New York suburbs—many of them heavily Democratic—rebelled and defeated the legislation. One Assembly source told New York Focus, “There were a lot of members who though they’d get killed in re-election if they were overriding local control.” The source said: “All the suburban members were very thankful that the mandates are out.” Melanie Spivak, a Scarsdale Neighborhood Associations board member, celebrated the defeat of Hochul’s plan. “Local control of our zoning laws and building requirements are imperative to protecting our unique village,” she said.
Democrats were put in a tough position because they have become increasingly reliant on votes from communities like Scarsdale. In presidential elections, Barack Obama won Scarsdale by a comfortable 12 points in 2012, but Hillary Clinton won the town by an astounding 57 points in 2016. And Joe Biden won Scarsdale 75 percent to 24 percent in 2020. It’s hard—though not impossible—to ignore the voices of those who deliver Democratic votes by such large margins.
This challenge is national in scope. The old Bobby Kennedy coalition of working-class Democrats of all races is long gone, and the party’s shift toward highly educated voters has accelerated in recent years. As Teixeira has noted, between 2012 and 2020, the Democratic Party’s support among college-educated white people rose by sixteen points, while its advantage among nonwhite working-class supporters declined by nineteen points.
Nationally, Democrats are advised to soft-pedal necessary zoning reforms for fear of alienating their new highly educated base of voters. While most zoning authority is delegated by states to local jurisdictions, the federal government can also play a role. The Congress has regulated local zoning where it promotes racial discrimination, interferes with telecommunications, or tramples on religious freedom, for example. In 2022, when I made the case for the creation of a federal Economic Fair Housing Act to give working-class people a right to sue suburbs that employ unjustified exclusionary zoning laws, some cautioned that Democrats should set aside their values to appease wealthy white communities. University of California professor Chris Elmendorf, for example, wrote: “At a time when suburbs are politically up for grabs…it would be nuts for national Dems to launch a frontal attack on exclusionary zoning.”
So, if Democrats want to address rising housing prices and increasing economic segregation of neighborhoods and schools, what is the path to political victory on zoning reform?
Policymakers in states such as Oregon and California found another way. In 2021, urban Democratic legislators in California who didn’t like wealthy suburbs looking down on their constituents came together with rural Republican legislators who felt the same way to defeat representatives of wealthy exclusionary suburbs and end exclusive single-family zoning statewide. The victims of class bias, who know no color or party, coalesced.
In Oregon, a similar coalition came together in 2019. For some Republicans, the anti-elitist message was attractive, according to Michael Andersen of the liberal Sightline Institute. He wrote: “Two people familiar with legislative conversations said not to underestimate the appeal, to some rural Republicans, of passing laws that would annoy some well-off Portlanders.”
The victories in Oregon and California raises an intriguing question: if Democrats pursued this type of legislative reform and were willing on occasion to override the perceived interests of affluent white liberal suburban voters, could the party begin to lure some of those white working-class Republican voters back into the Democratic fold?
Doing so would require national Democrats to change course. It’s a lot easier for Democrats to look down on working-class whites as deplorables than to try to build alliances with them. But when Democrats do reach out, as they did in California and Oregon on housing issues, important liberal policies that improve the lives of working people can prevail. Democrats should welcome votes from anywhere—including Scarsdale—but in seeking that political support, Democrats should not cave to the worst instincts of educated white liberals to exclude and instead appeal to that subset of educated liberals who genuinely wish to be more inclusive.
At the end of the day, letting the interests of upscale constituencies dictate the rejection of longstanding Democratic values is unacceptable. This fight, as Joe Biden might say, is a struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party. Democrats support public schools, labor unions, and the idea of one person, one vote because they want to improve the lives of average Americans. When they tiptoe around exclusionary practices because they’re worried about offending wealthy voters in places like Scarsdale, Democrats lose sight of the very reason they became Democrats in the first place.
Richard D. Kahlenberg is a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute and author of Excluded: How Snob Zoning, NIMBYism and Class Bias Build the Walls We Don’t See.