Conservatives Must Address America's Housing Crisis | Opinion

Conservatives, it seems, don't want to talk about our housing crisis. Some view "housing crisis" itself as a progressive buzzword, implying some inalienable right to a comfortable, taxpayer-funded home. Others counsel retreat to the countryside and abandonment of left-leaning cities and suburbs, where the crisis is the worst.

But the housing crisis affects more Americans every year—educated, middle-income young people, not just the unemployed and fixed-income retirees. Less than 50 percent of millennials, the largest generation by population, owned a home in 2020, compared to 78 percent of baby boomers. Conservatives cannot turn a blind eye to something so fundamental.

Nor should we let our cities, home to 83 percent of Americans, become unlivable slums. American metropolises were not always blighted concentrations of crime and ugliness. Conservatives who abandon cities are just ducking responsibility for failing to defend them.

Conservatives must empathize with young people seeking home ownership and residents of struggling urban areas—including the homeless. In February, historic cold fronts and snowstorms overwhelmed electrical grids and froze oil and gas pipelines, leading to hundreds of deaths. If meteorological trends hold, we could be in for a repeat this year as our homelessness problem gets even worse.

America's housing crisis is real. Conservatives need their own policy response—but many on the Right offer watered-down liberal urbanism instead. They hope to solve the housing crisis with laissez-faire reforms like relaxing zoning laws, which they argue are the real villain of the housing crisis. If property owners could use their land as they saw fit, they could drive home prices down by offering makeshift alternatives like tenements, short-term rentals and accessory dwellings.

Zoning laws can be abused, but the libertarian notion of unplanned, zoning-free cities would worsen the crisis. Deregulated cities would degenerate to massive swaths of the cheapest option: the corporate-owned slum. After all, two residences will always fetch a higher price than one, even when they sit on the same square footage. A dozen squalid residences, even more.

BlackRock building
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 04: The headquarters of BlackRock stands in Manhattan as hundreds of members of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) march to the Manhattan financial company, the largest shareholder in the mining company Warrior Met Coal on November 04, 2021 in New York City. The miners and their supporters held a rally outside of BlackRock in support of over 1,100 UMWA members have been on strike for seven months at Warrior Met Coal over demands for better pay and benefits. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Even dirt-cheap slums won't help most homeless people find shelter. In his book The Least of Us, author Sam Quinones attacks the misconception that homelessness is about housing costs. He writes, "For many progressives it is taboo to suggest people are on the street for any reason other than poverty." But Quinones shows that problems like drugs and abusive relationships, obvious to any observer, are much more determinative. Solving homelessness means strengthening our towns and cities into true communities of affordable residences where neighbors put down roots and support each other.

It's telling that liberal proponents of zoning deregulation are so eager to welcome corporate consolidation of housing—arguably the root of our crisis. Corporate investors like BlackRock purchased 15 percent of American homes for sale in the first quarter of 2021. One company, the e-real estate giant Zillow, sought to become the "Amazon of real estate," purchasing and profiting off house-flipping so impulsively that a brief market downturn recently cost it $300 million. Corporate monopolies in housing drive up prices. Conservatives must oppose the Amazonification of housing, lest young Americans find themselves renters forever.

The corporate takeover of America's real estate market has also opened it to globalization, allowing foreign businesses to grab up American residential properties and land. China, America's number-one geopolitical adversary, owns the largest share by far, and its investments drive up prices for American buyers. One study from the Wharton business school showed that housing prices increased 8 percent more in zip codes with higher foreign-born Chinese populations.

These trends call for a conservative housing policy that protects home ownership—not liberal urbanism that helps corporate buyers. More and more young Americans are having to settle for the unstable life of perpetual rent, while corporations with more purchasing power corner the housing market. Effective federal, state and even municipal policies must curtail corporate—and foreign—purchases of residential properties. They must also increase incentives for young Americans to settle down, such as tax credits for first-time homebuyers and zero-down mortgages.

Liberals will never improve quality of life for young families through laissez-faire housing proposals. And progressives, despite overtures to first-time homebuyers such as in the recently botched Build Back Better spending omnibus, always pair these policies with corporate bailouts and government-owned housing.

Conservatives are well positioned to empower families without promoting dependence or corporatization. Progressives and liberals think they can fix systemic issues with more social spending or deregulation, but conservatives have an opportunity to halt false progress and offer a positive vision of the future.

Austin Stone is Managing Partner at Beck & Stone. He is currently on assignment in Washington D.C., serving as COO for the Center for Urban Renewal and Education (CURE) and Senior Advisor for Latham Saddler, candidate for U.S. Senate. He can be found on Twitter at @ausstone.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.