Discover more from Vancouver Needs More Housing
Territoriality vs. "we live in a society"
Why it's hard to say yes to more housing next door.
We have people who want to live in Vancouver, and we have other people who want to build housing for them. Why do we make it so difficult to get permission?
A frustrating and mysterious aspect of the resulting housing shortage in Vancouver is that nobody’s better off. It’s a terrible situation for renters and for prospective homebuyers, but long-time homeowners don’t benefit from sky-high prices unless they’re willing to sell and move somewhere far away, which most aren’t. So there’s tremendous costs, and no offsetting benefits.
So why is it so difficult for people to say yes to more housing?
What makes people behave like this?
I’d suggest that the answer is, humans are naturally territorial. (This is very deeply embedded in human nature. Even slugs are territorial: when they’re fighting, they move at twice their normal speed.)
Another example, from the comments on Matthew Yglesias’s Substack:
People form emotional attachments to things. Some of us love our homes and would like to keep them. That shouldn’t mean everything must be sacrificed to secure this interest, but it’s foolish to dismiss it. So far as in our power we ought to shape the world to *serve* human interests and promote human happiness. We are complex creatures so have diverse and sometimes contradictory interests, hence *balance* is needed. Anyone who advocates for a monocausal approach like MY cannot be trusted to design a good policy.
The counter-argument is that we live in a society, which basically means that we’re participating in a large-scale system of cooperation. Living in a city, I work to produce goods or services that other people want, and I rely on other people to produce goods or services that I want. We all depend on the health-care system, for example. Where are the people who work in health care going to live?
Preventing other people from living nearby because I want to protect my view (for example) is refusing to cooperate.
Collective action problems require good institutions
Of course, just understanding the problem isn’t sufficient to ensure cooperation, when you’re thinking about your own home being affected.
Brynn Lackie, writing in the Toronto Sun:
I regularly rail against NIMBYism in these columns, but when we recently learned that the Starbucks at my corner will be giving way to a new 11-story building, my immediate reaction was frustration and dread.
I thought of what a drag it will be to live through the construction, how street parking will get even harder to come by, what an adjustment it will be to have all those new neighbours staring down into my backyard. I even caught myself saying, out loud, to human people that could actually hear me, that the light will change in my backyard and our trees will probably die.
Turns out that I am that NIMBY I love to disparage so much!
You get a collective action problem whenever the costs of an action are borne by an individual, while the benefits are spread out over a large group of people. Even when the benefits far outweigh the costs for society as a whole, it’s the individual’s incentives that matter.
Collective action problems happen all the time. To overcome a collective action problem, you need to make sure that your institutions are set up to provide the right incentives.
In the case of housing, what that means is that local governments should focus on setting overall policies and city-wide plans, rather than trying to make decisions on each and every project individually. Or these policies and plans should be set at a higher level of government. Jerusalem Demsas:
I just don't think these things should be so local. There's a reason why Eric Adams [mayor of New York City] is more YIMBY than individual council members. There's a reason why Kathy Hochul [governor of New York state] is more yes, in my backyard, more pro housing production than even local members of the statehouse or of just local city council members or whatever, because the more local you get, the smaller the percentage of people who even engage in local politics is, which means the smaller number of people whose concerns it requires to actually change policy.
And what that means is that for things that are truly, truly local, like there's a pothole on your road and you're really mad about it, there should be some way for you to be able to say, hey, you need to fix this, this is public infrastructure and my voice should matter and you're affecting my street, and there should be people who do that.
But the issue of housing production is not local. It is a regional if not national concern if places that have the most productive jobs and other job centers and have high wages are basically barring people from around the country from being able to access those and then also harming the people who live within the community already by making them pay extraordinarily high rents and housing prices.
And so you need to move the decision-making up and that makes it actually more democratic, not less democratic, because more people vote at the state level. More people vote for mayor than they do for their city council members. They know their mayor and they're more willing to blame their mayor and hold that person accountable than they will local members of government, and that's true across the country. And then when you get to the state level, even more people are willing to hold that person accountable. There's also more journalism that holds that person accountable. When you get to the state level, state governments usually are held at a much higher standard of accountability than any kind of local government, which often has zero journalists even paying attention .
The MacPhail Report. “We recommend a stronger role for housing needs estimates and citywide official plans, which guide how entire communities are expected to grow. We also recommend reduced reliance on site-by-site public hearings and council approvals that delay homebuilding and amplify the voices of groups opposing new housing at the expense of citywide objectives and affordability.”
On the difficulty of cooperation: Joseph Heath, Hobbes’s difficult idea.