■ Reasonable observers would note that San Francisco’s problem is largely one of supply. It’s one of America’s largest metropolitan areas, blessed with beautiful views, a fantastically mild climate
, and an enviable economy
, so people naturally gravitate there. But the city simply doesn’t permit housing construction
at nearly the rate it should, with a population-adjusted rate of new housing permits half that in Washington, DC, and barely a quarter that in Austin, Texas.
■ Language is no small part of the problem. It may feel satisfyingly self-righteous for a local politician to declare that “Housing is a human right
”, but it’s neither helpful nor true. Housing is a universal human need, and knowing the difference
between a universal need and a human right is no small matter.
■ A human right (like freedom of speech) is not subject to material constraints. It belongs to a person by right of birth, takes on no material form, and can only be taken away, usually by the interference of oppressive powers.
■ By contrast, someone has to answer a vital question about every universal need: “How can we encourage an abundant supply?”. In the case of housing, there is no magic wand to wave that will conjure housing out of thin (perhaps foggy) air. Someone has to build it. And in the mayor’s own words, “For years, San Francisco has made it too hard to approve and build new homes.
That must change.” The government there has, if anything, obstructed the function of a market-based housing industry.
■ People seeking to make money within a market will rarely leave any good opportunities on the table, and in the case of housing, it should be plainly evident that with developers are perpetually eager to seek their fortunes – ones they can only make by building things. If enough developers aren’t building, the most likely reasons for housing shortages just about anywhere come down to insurmountable constraints: Either there isn’t enough available land or there are too many regulatory prohibitions.
■ Where land is in short supply, the choice can often be made to effectively create more by building vertically. But where regulatory constraints
are the ones limiting supply, it’s not “the market” that is the problem.
■ We should take care to call things by their appropriate names, and a thing that takes on a material form needed by everyone isn’t a “human right”, no matter how good it may feel to say. The material form makes it a human need. Knowing that distinction – and taking it seriously – is the only way to engage in the right mindset for solving the problem when there isn’t enough of a good thing to go around.