Matt Yglesias described the housing affordability crisis as “Blue America’s greatest failing,” and there’s a great deal of truth to that. The Bay Area, New York City, D.C., and other major metropolitan areas facing a housing affordability crisis due to NIMBY-driven land-use regulations are very left-leaning.
But, it’s not obvious that liberal/progressive sentiments are the main driver of land-use regulations. For example, there’s a great deal of evidence that Republicans can be just as NIMBYish as Democrats, indicating that self-interest, rather than ideology, motivates support for exclusionary zoning. Additionally, in the ‘90s, NIMBYism was more a problem in suburbs, where Republicans are more likely to be found.
Adding to the body of research indicating that NIMBYism may not be informed by ideology is a new paper by Jason Sorens:
Economists have scrutinized the effects of residential building restrictions on the cost of housing, growth, and migration in recent years. More strictly zoned states and metro areas have lost population to less strictly zoned areas in the United States, but have seen per capita incomes rise, because lower-income households are disproportionately likely to seek out locations with affordable housing. By changing the geographic distribution of population, housing supply restrictions should also affect political geography. This paper estimates those effects with a variety of methods and data. There are consistently sized, statistically significant effects at the state, county, and subcounty levels. Jurisdictions with greater housing supply restriction gradually and subsequently become more Democratic; there is no evidence that Democratic-moving areas subsequently become more regulated or costly. U.S. housing supply restrictions select for education. Areas with more costly housing see their college-educated share of the population rise, and the college-educated have become more Democratic than the non-college population.
When the supply for housing is restricted, prices rise, making living in heavily regulated areas feasible only for the well-to-do, who are more likely to be college educated and more liberal. Though Sorens doesn’t point to one specific causal mechanism, the positive correlation between income, education, a desire to live in more urban areas, and political liberalism contribute to a selection mechanism where wealthier liberal residents can afford to live in strictly regulated cities more than their less-educated and more-likely-to-be Republican counterparts.
If you’re not convinced of this “reverse causation,” think about it another way. When wealthier residents drive up rents in a supply-constrained neighborhood, they also attract businesses that cater to customers in newly “gentrified” neighborhoods. Does this mean that microbreweries, upscale coffee shops, or cat cafes lead to greater regulatory stringency? Of course not–they’re a symptom of the problem (and a lower regulatory burden doesn’t mean these tony establishments will disappear).
Further confirming this dynamic, previous research has found that regulatory capture by highly localized special interests matters more for regulatory stringency than the politics of the median voter. And while Sorens doesn’t rule out the possibility that Democrats prefer to live in more regulated areas, “this explanation is inconsistent with the finding that highly Republican jurisdictions may be no less likely to enact strict zoning laws.”
A great deal of NIMBY rhetoric is left-leaning, particularly when it comes to opposing development if it means developers would profit, but this paper pours more cold water on the idea that NIMBYism is an ideologically left-leaning movement.