Subscribing to the “Housing Theory of Everything” is to confront the fact that a problem can 1) be important, 2) effect (nearly) everyone, 3) have an obvious and welfare improving policy solution, and 4) still be politically stuck. Whether it’s classic prisoner’s dilemmas or a more subtle transitional gains traps, the reality is that building housing has proven incredibly difficult because there is a group whose wealth is overly concentrated in the stock of housing they own (i.e. nearly every homeowner in the US) and who have every incentive to fight to prevent new housing from being built because restricting housing supply increase the value of their propterty.
That’s it. That’s the whole story, everything else is bookkeeping and tactical anecdotes. So how do we solve this problem? One way is to motivate large swaths of voters to push for reform, but there’s only the entire body of political theory and history telling you that’s easier said than done when the opposition is concentrated and organized.
The thing is, building more housing is the “first best” solution- it’s not the only solution. Should we increase the housing stock, lower prices, make the average person wealthier and more economically secure, reduce homelessness, and spend all of eternity celebrating the victory of common sense in the halls of Valhalla? Yes, of course. But that “first best” solution isn’t available in a lot of places (see the previous two paragraphs). Besides beating our heads against the wall in the hopes of victory one spoonful of brick at a time, what else can we do? We can go looking for second-best solutions, particularly ones where the political opposition is softer and less organized.
Converting office space to residential housing is a near Platonic-ideal second best solution. Why? Because it produces more housing, albeit with the costs of conversion and likely subperfect design. What makes it a dream second-best solution for our dilemma, however, is all of the opposition mechanisms it dodges:
- There’s nothing remotely historic about most of these buildings.
- The are structured in such a way that lend themselve to high-density housing (i.e. apartment and condo towers).
- They’re predominantly in relatively dense urban and edge-city areas.
- Whatever views or skylines they are obstructing are already obstructed!
- There’s a built in interest group to push for the conversion (i.e. the building owners).
- There’s no pre-existing tenant or tenants who’s losses can be highlighted at the expense of everyone else’s gain.
First and second best categorization are always a little squishy because they depend on what you include in the costs and benefits. Building new housing from scratch might seem obviously the best possible outcome, but once you factor in the political costs of zoning and approval, there’s going to be a lot of locales where building conversion is the far lower cost option. I’m very much team “work from home” and this is just one more reason you should join our merry band of robe and slipper-types. Hollow out the offices, convert the buildings to housing, and watch the urban landscape transform from gray and glass offices to a utopia of urban singles skipping from brunch to brunch until their kids are born and their metabolisms slows down.
Now, to be clear, there is no political free lunch here. There will still be costly and difficult re-zoning obstacles in lots of places. Plenty of these building will need to be brought up to code. The locations may not be ideal relative to schools. But those costs and concerns are trifles when considered in the context that the median income in half of US cities is insufficient to rent a two bedroom apartment for less than 30% of gross income.
Democracy is messy and there’s no changing that. While it makes for bad sloganeering and will never insulate you from getting slagged on twitter, the reality is that second best solutions are what move peaceful societies forward. We have a lot of coalitions to keep happy, they all want something for themselves, and nothing is free. We have to work with what we got.
And what we got is a bunch of office buildings that nobody wants to work in anymore. Let’s live in them!
…and then work from home in them? In what used to be the offices we didn’t want to work in?